Sometimes you don’t have a choice. You are in a new city and life is extra stressful. Money is tight but your need for a good arm pump is tighter. You know you should not sign the contract but the gym representative seems to be an honest enough guy, right? He reassures you that if you must move during the life of the contract, that the termination process is simple and fair… yeah, right…
This is precisely the situation I found myself in after my wife and I moved to Tennessee in August of 2018. We were broke college students pursuing our dreams. We took a leap of faith and left our home state of Michigan with barely $1,000 to our names. We knew there were sacrifices to be made to reach our potential, but we could never have foreseen the challenges ahead. Only by the grace of Yahweh did we make it through those first few months. I was a Classical pianist coming off the high of a successful time in undergrad, with acceptance letters from a couple of graduate institutions in Tennessee. My wife was accepted to a private school in northeastern Tennessee for medical studies. This fact ultimately dictated that we would reside in Knoxville, and I would do my best to find gigs and work while she went through grad school. One broke graduate student is bad enough, but two? At least we had the common sense to see that we could not survive if we went to grad school simultaneously.
Fast forward a couple months and I had found a part time job to pay the bills. A wiser version of me would have swallowed his pride and taken a full-time position to better pay the bills, but I was still clinging to the belief that I could find a lucrative music gig given a little time. A gig that could financially and emotionally validate the last four years of my life spent studying music in college. Equal to my desire to prove myself musically was the burning need to find a gym. I had spent the better part of a decade lifting weights prior to 2018. It was my escape from the stressful and mundane components of life. Where others may have found solace on a basketball court or on the gridiron, I found myself at peace in the weight room. Being introduced to so many struggles that came from exposure to ‘real life’ (As opposed to the insular life of a college student) had me missing the gym like never before. I needed a fix. I got what partial relief I could by doing oodles of pushups, squats, and handstand presses, but it wasn’t enough. I missed the barbells. I missed the squat racks and the benches. I didn’t realize until that moment how blessed we had been to have access to the state-of-the-art rec center at our alma mater, GVSU.
There is much more to share about our humble beginnings in Knoxville, but for the purpose of this article, I will direct my focus towards the interactions we had with commercial gyms in Knoxville and what we learned from those interactions. In a later article, I intend to cover the other two gyms with which we have recently interacted. For now, I will focus on our first two experiences as well as the process I went through to cancel our contract with one of the gyms. For the sake of legitimizing my viewpoint on commercial gyms and to award positive publicity where it is deserved, I will be including the names of these establishments. I have in no way been paid to endorse or badmouth any of these brands. My desire to even write about these experiences stems from our recent departure from a 3-year gym contract which proved to be an unnecessarily trying debacle, which I will touch on later. For now, let me start with our very first commercial gym interaction.
Interaction #1 – Planet Fitness
As previously mentioned, my wife and I were quite cash poor when we first moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. Early on after our arrival, we visited the local Planet Fitness. I was aware of their anti-lunk rigamarole, but I also recognized that their price could not be beat. I thought it may pose a temporary solution until an actual gym could be afforded. We walked in dressed in workout attire, ready to get in our first training session at the new digs. We knew we didn’t want to commit to a long-term purchase, so we planned to just pay for a day pass and scope things out. However, the front receptionist informed us that we could not observe their facilities unless we signed up for a membership. There were no day passes available and it would cost us $20 each in signing costs just to start a membership. Knowing our dwindling bank account could not afford a hit like that, we headed home in defeat, preparing to do a heckin’ lot of pushups for the third time that week. I have never been back to a Planet Fitness since that September day in 2018.
Interaction #2 – Court South/National Fitness Center
About a month after the unsuccessful Planet Fitness venture, we were a little more financially stable. My part time job was providing a meager trickle into our bank account which staved off our expenses from further hemorrhaging our lowly savings. Somehow, despite her better judgment, I convinced my wife that we needed to get a gym membership soon, or I would go nuts. Maybe it was the constant twitching of my eyes or the incessant tapping of my fingers that convinced her. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with physical tics which manifest from my stressed or agitated mind. When I am under or over-stimulated, I seem to get caught in loops where I count my movements over and over. The only times the jerky movement and incessant counting stops are when I’m playing music or lifting weights. Whether due to a conscious decision or out of a subconscious empathy for my condition, she agreed we needed access to a gym.
We made the 5-minute commute to the midsized gym facility nearest our apartment complex. So tantalizingly close, that we could not help but get our hopes up that the gym would be to our liking. I remember the visit to Court South well. We were given a tour of the facility and were treated kindly by the club manager and the salesman/personal trainer on duty. The gym was small compared to what we were used to at GVSU, but it checked all the essential boxes. I remember it was a Tuesday because Tuesday meant Arm Day, and it had been months since I had had a proper arm workout.
When it came time to discuss costs, we were given two options. The second option was only offered after we showed our apprehensions about the initial option’s cost. Option #1 - $50 monthly each for individual full access memberships. One complimentary hour of personal training included. Option #2 – A joint membership costing $35 monthly for each of us with full gym access. Both membership options had three tiers to them: 1 year, 2 years, or 3 years, respectively. The prices I named of $50 monthly or $35 monthly were based off of a 3-year contract. The prices for the other two contract lengths were far too astronomical for us to even consider at the time. Other than the prices, I never understood the difference between the two options; if there even were other differences at all.
Additional considerations were as follows: The signing fee was reduced to 19.95 as a promo instead of the usual 195.00 when we visited. There was a yearly ‘amenities fee’ of $65 that came out every July. The gym offered a three day grace period which allowed for the client to redact their contract if they were dissatisfied with the service within the first three days. However, this grace period did not pertain to those who wanted the 19.95 promotional signing fee. (What a sneaky thing to do…) No other costs were mentioned at the time, but we would later learn the monumental costs involved in cancelling the membership.
Our choice was clear; sign up for a joint 3-year contract or walk away once again with no arm pump… this time, the urge won out. We trained at Court South for about 7 months before moving across town to a better apartment. Here, we enjoyed one of the benefits allotted us as members of a large chain of gyms. Thanks to the merger of Court South and the larger conglomerate, National Fitness Center, we were able to use our Court South membership as passage into the National Fitness Center facilities. The flagship NFC club was just a few miles away from our new apartment! It was here that I really came into my own as an aspiring powerlifter.
The facility was massive, but the weight room did not match the grandeur of the building. Sure, there were countless pulley and hammer strength machines, but there were only two squat racks and four flat benches for a facility hosting thousands of members. To make matters worse, the free weights were on the second floor, which meant I had to put my deadlifts down nice and gently to avoid receiving noise complaints. The real stickler was that they had extra squat racks and other helpful implements on site, but they were sanctioned off for the sole purpose of personal training. All of these minor inconveniences were trumped by the accessibility of the facility to us. We enjoyed the usage of the steam rooms, hot tubs, and indoor/outdoor pools on occasion, but we used the weight room 4-5 times a week. For a couple who only visits their gym once or twice a week the $70 monthly charge would probably be unwarranted. In contrast, thanks to our high attendance, I think we got our money’s worth over the years.
Ultimately, we ended up staying with Court South/NFC for 2 and ½ years. For work purposes, my wife and I relocated to Roanoke, Virginia in late February of 2021. This put us out of range of the National Fitness Center’s territory, so it was time to cancel our membership with a little over 6 months left in our contract. I always knew it would be a challenge to cancel our membership with the National Fitness Center. During our time with NFC, I read plenty of reviews about them which were centered around their ‘frustrating’ and ‘disgusting’ cancellation policies. I knew my best option to save even a fraction of money would be to do things by the book. I called NFC’s member services to determine precisely what I would need to accomplish before we would be considered out of our contract. I have created a few reviews online (Google Reviews, Yelp, Consumer Report) for NFC which chronicle the complete process I went through. In summation, I will provide the materials and cost I had to send in to NFC below:
- Written letter of intent to cancel membership (Snail Mailed)
- Pay stub, copy of lease, and utility bill to prove new residence (Snail Mailed)
- Our two keycards (Snail Mailed)
- $195.00 cancellation fee
- One month of membership from the date of cancellation letter reception ($70)
This process took over a MONTH to complete. From my initial phone call to member services (Early March) to the actual cancellation of my membership (Early April), I had weekly interactions with member services to complete this process. The cost I can understand from a business perspective. I signed a contract and they were going to get their money from that contract no matter what. However, the process to prove our departure from Tennessee was more complicated than a trip to the DMV! Looking back on the situation with a more objective stance, I see National Fitness Center’s motive for overcomplicating the process. You see, NFC has a rollover policy. This means that after the natural lifetime of a 3-year contract, you are not removed from the monthly charging of your card. If left unchecked, NFC will continue to charge you until you send them a physical cancellation letter to their member services department.
This opportunity to charge your card infinitum is too tantalizing for them to pass up. They have you in their clutches and they have no intention of letting you off the hook easily. This is the essential example of corporate gym business models: Get your card information and make it incredibly difficult to cancel their services.
In closing, I want to provide some practical advice in dealing with commercial gyms. My whole purpose in sharing my particular ordeal with National Fitness Center is to help others dodge a few avoidable mistakes that I made in my early 20s.
#1. Your health is extremely valuable, but you don’t have to pay a fortune to be healthy – I readily admit that I was not in a stable place when my wife and I signed our 3-year National Fitness Center contract. It is always easy for me to retroactively judge a situation I was in and assume I would handle it better now. We all make mistakes, but I believe my choice to sign a 3-year contract was more motivated by ignorance than by an unstable mental state.
I did not do enough research on what gyms were available to my wife and me at the time. A quick google search brought up Court South/NFC, a little Gold’s Gym on the other side of town, and 3-4 Planet Fitness outlets. These businesses had spent good money on making sure their names would pop up first. Walking into the Court South gym with training clothes on, rearing to go, put the power of persuasion into their hands right away. I should have treated the situation like buying a car; willing to make a good deal that day, but equally willing to walk away and find a better option elsewhere if needed. My error was in lacking knowledge about a legitimate competitor to Court South/NFC. It is completely plausible that there was not a better option in the Knoxville gym market, but I had not done enough research to prove or disprove that statement. I essentially entered a $2,520+ contract with no negotiation or competitor comparisons available to me.
In my situation, I should have waited until my wife and I were financially secure before signing a contract. I absolutely love my time in the gym, but my ignorant financial decision exacerbated our money-related stress levels far more than the gym alleviated them. We survived thanks to divinely timed aid from people who would have been complete strangers to us a couple months prior. I am thankful for the experience so early on in my life, as it provided an opportunity to grow in patience, humility, and wisdom; but I would not recommend owing a sleazy company $1,000 of dollars to build character…
The other realistic option for people interested in a gym solely for health improvement purposes is to create your own home gym. This results in a large initial investment, but if you are an avid powerlifter or some other form of specialized strength athlete, the investment will pay for itself over time. You also can just not go to a gym. Crazy concept I know… but unless you are an athlete training for a particular purpose, I do not advocate joining a gym. I will definitely write an article on this subject soon, but for now, please know that you do not have to spend a dime in gym memberships or equipment purchases to be healthy. Health is a lifestyle investment, not a financial investment. When my wife and I first moved to Knoxville I had access to two 45lb dumbbells, a resistance band, and a playground pullup bar. Those are plenty of resources to focus on calisthenics and endurance.
#2. If a business will not take cash, find out why before caving into their demands – Court South/NFCs entire business model exists around securing the credit card numbers of their clients through a cashless contract. This ensures that they will get all the money coming to them in that contract no matter what. At one point in the life of our contract, our credit card on file was compromised by a hacker. By the time we had obtained a new card, NFC had charged us $35.00 for missing our automatic payment withdrawal for that month. We had to pay the charge in addition to our monthly fee before we could use the gym again, and there were no options for appealing the charge as the financials were all handled third-party, offsite. I understand the reason for the additional charge to exist, but the complete and utter lack of leniency in this uncontrollable circumstance was off-putting.
If a business operates solely on a cashless financial system, I have now taken to investigating the business’ motive in doing so before I even consider making a purchase. Usually it is for positive reasons, like eliminating paper receipts or minimizing human contact with dirty coins and dollar bills. However, more and more often I see the cashless model in conjunction with monthly fees and contractual agreements. Streaming services and other digital mediums have a logical reason for going cashless as they provide an intangible service with no direct human interactions. Aside from gyms, I have had major issues stem from internet provider companies (Ahem.. looking at you Comcast) overcharging us for our plan or signing us up for superfluous services we do not want. This overcharge problem is made possible through their procurement of our credit card. The justification for demanding that the consumer provide their card information is usually ‘customer convenience’. Yeah, right; convenience for these companies to overcharge your account is more like it…
Well, I would say I have droned on enough about gym contracts and shady business practices. I hope that a sliver of benefit has been awarded you by reading my mental regurgitations. I really hate commercial gyms… I think I will go outside and enjoy one of the few pastimes which remains void of any subscription services or contractual obligations: Walking.