Gyms often have several revenue streams, but their primary source of income will almost always be membership fees.
The average UK gym membership costs £40 per month, but you will find many charging significantly more or considerably less than this. The UK has over 7,000 gyms and fitness centres, everything from spit-and-sawdust warehouses to luxury health clubs, and they’re often more affordable and accessible than in the past. One reason is that the fitness industry is booming (even accounting for the pandemic), but also because competition is so high, especially at the budget end of the market.
Despite this, people are still wary about taking out a membership. It’s easy to join a gym but maintaining the monthly direct debit, especially in these difficult economic times, can put people off. Some gyms perform a soft credit check too, which may prevent anyone with a poor credit rating from signing up. Not everyone has the disposable income to make a year-long commitment.
There can also be some trepidation about cancelling a membership. It can feel like an admission of defeat, especially if you want to get fitter or healthier. Some people may feel embarrassed about cancelling, preferring instead to let the subscription roll over again, promising themselves that they’ll go next month. Gyms love it when this happens, but we’ll discuss that later in this post.
The reality is that gym memberships are relatively straightforward to cancel and probably more so than they used to be (remember the Friends episode when a desperate Chandler took Ross with him to cancel his?). Pure Gym, for example, lets you cancel your membership online via its website (although this must be done 4-days before the renewal date).
Some gyms require you to phone up, cancel via your bank or put it into writing. If you’re someone who suffers from anxiety, then before you sign-up, it’s worth looking at cancellation procedures because it’s far easier to do that online than picking up the phone and sitting through the membership retention sales pitch designed to convince you to stay. So, is there a way around paying a membership fee?
Can you go to a gym without a membership?
It’s a tricky question because the answer is both no and (sometimes) yes.
Gyms are businesses, and you’re expected to pay for their services. A monthly direct debit is the most common form of payment, but you can usually pay upfront for an annual membership too. Gyms rely on these fees to pay for the running and equipment costs, so it’s in their best interests to use a membership subscription model as it guarantees regular and consistent income over the longer term.
So, in most cases, you will need a membership to use a gym.
What’s interesting is that many gyms are actually oversubscribed: they have more members on their books than they can actually accommodate, and far from being a problem, it allows them to collect an income even when they’re operating below capacity. It works very well to have people sign up and pay the fees without regular attendance.
While gyms in apartment complexes, hotels, universities, and workplaces may be ‘free’ and accessible without membership, the cost is usually recouped indirectly either via rent or payments made at booking, tuition fees or as an employment perk that also benefits the company (exercise supporting productivity and employee retention, etc.).
There are some ways around gym membership costs.
- Some gyms offer daily, weekly or monthly passes that you can buy in advance and use to access the facilities without signing up. This is an easy and affordable way to use the gym in the short term.
This is useful if you want to try out a gym before joining or if you’re trying to pick between several options in the area. You may also be training for a specific event and only need the gym for a set period of time. Short-term passes can also be useful if you’re away from home and your regular gym doesn’t allow you to transfer your membership between locations temporarily.
We’ve mentioned this as a short-term option, but it doesn’t have to be. You could gym-hop between several places using monthly or weekly passes, trying each one out and then moving on to the next. This is a more expensive way of doing it, but this pay-as-you-go method is far easier to manage if you’re income can vary considerably over time.
You should be aware, however, that a 7-day or 30-day pass means 7 or 30 days from the time of purchase. The days run consecutively, so if you bought a pass on January 1st, it would expire on January 7th, regardless of how many times you went in that period.
Hussle is a company that Money Saving Expert describes as a ‘gym-brokering service’. They used to be known as pay-as-you-gym. You can buy passes from them by searching by postcode for participating gyms in your area. If you have a specific place that you’re looking for, then contact the gym directly.
If you’re only looking to use a gym once a week or periodically, then passes can be a relatively good value for money. They also give you a more realistic picture of an individual gym. Things like equipment waiting times, facility management and maintenance, cleanliness, etc., can be harder to gauge when you’re being shown around or during induction. Experiencing the gym as it is on several visits can give you a much better understanding of what your membership will entail once you’ve signed up.
- If your friends use the gym, then they may be able to get you a free pass as part of a referral. This gives a short window of time for you to try out the facilities, similar to a day pass. The benefit of this is that you can exercise with your friends and also get their honest opinion about the setup.
- If you’re not looking for anything too fancy, check if there’s an outdoor gym in your local area. Most council-run parks will have some cardio and resistance training equipment available to use all-year-around for free. Granted, this won’t be suitable for anyone setting up a serious training plan, but for casual or complete beginners, it gives you a chance to start building an exercise habit for free.
Most people join a gym with the best intentions but quickly fall off the wagon. Starting small and using a budget-friendly method like this means that you can build up your motivation before you start spending money. Check your local parks because often there are more than walking trails and outdoor gyms to use. Many have Park Runs on Saturday mornings which is a free and very beginner-friendly 5km running event. During the warmer weather, you may also find you can sign up for a military boot camp fitness class or team games like ultimate Frisbee and rounders.
- Some gyms open up their exercise classes to non-members for a fee, and while this won’t give you access to the rest of the gym, it’s a great way to build fitness. Many people find classes more enjoyable and less repetitive than using equipment alone. You could also look at classes in other places: village and school halls, local community centres, council-run facilities, etc., as these are also often on a pay-as-you-go basis, or you can block-book classes for a reduced rate. If you’re in receipt of benefits or are disadvantaged or disabled, then you may be able to exercise for free or for a heavily discounted price. Check out local community fitness centres, too, because even for working adults, places may be subsidised and cheaper than gym prices. Swimming is also a great form of low-intensity exercise and is often cheaper than a gym membership.
- You don’t need to join a gym to get fit. The internet is an incredible resource with paid and free content you can use at home. Apps like Les Mills or Nike+ have a paid monthly subscription and are easy to cancel. You could also hire a PT for a remote 1-2-1 session if you have a camera and a stable internet connection. YouTube is a great way to access free content, and there’s a varied offering, everything from yoga, dance, HIIT training, barre, etc. In a recent blog post, we included 5 indoor cycling apps you can try at home, so you can train conveniently without compromising your progress.
Gyms can be transformative for fitness. Whether it’s the equipment, the facilities, the PTs, the community or the classes, there’s no doubt they provide an invaluable service. But they’re not the be-all-and-end-all of fitness. You can get fit for free. You can exercise regularly without a gym membership and the financial commitment that comes with it. You don’t need a treadmill to be a runner. You don’t need a full set of weights to begin strength training.
Starting off small can mean that when you’re ready to join a gym, you’re in a better position to recognise what you need from it. You’ll probably be happier paying membership fees then too. Maybe you started out looking for treadmills and exercise bikes but ended up in a weightlifting gym. Maybe you thought you’d want a high-end experience, but now you get a real kick out of cross-fit.
Remember, too, that you can pick a gym with a 30-day rolling contract. This makes it easier to cancel and allows you to terminate a membership if you don’t feel it's value for money or if your financial circumstances change.
If you're looking to buy an indoor cycling bike in 2023, then we're taking deposits for the electricity-generating RE:GEN ahead of its release.