Far too many people lock into costly unbreakable contracts and then end up never using the gym. This guide will take you through whether you need to pay at all, and if you do, how to shed the pounds while saving £££s at the same time.
This is a full list of the latest free trials, pay-as-you-go deals and no-frills gyms from £10-ish/month. Plus see what to watch out for with contracts, and what to do when membership goes wrong.
Don't commit unless you'll use it
After the excesses of Christmas, many of you pledge to get fit and join a gym. But a few months later, as your New Year's resolutions (and your enthusiasm) fade, half of you will disappear from the treadmills.
Don't be a gym dropout
Gyms aren't cheap. Those surging with good first-time fitness intentions should remember there's a good chance motivation may dwindle.
If you're locked into a contract, you could be paying £100s a year for nothing.
Never think a gym costs £50/month. If you're considering a year's contract, always multiply it by 12 and think of it as a yearly cost.
Remember, £50/month over 12 months is £600. And don't forget to factor in any administration or joining fees to the monthly charge.
If you're throwing away cash on unused membership each month and are out of contract, cancel, otherwise you're only keeping your wallet trim as these #gymfail tweets show:
Paid £270 for a year's membership, went for one swim. Most expensive swim ever.
I used to pay £102/month for a family gym membership for 1 year - I only went five times.
Grab free gym passes
75 clubs in England and Ireland
Get a free three-day pass by registering with Fitness First*. You'll then get an email with your voucher. You'll need to activate your offer by calling the club you plan to to go to. Find your nearest Fitness First.
Valid at all First Blue and Platinum clubs, but not Black Label clubs. Over-16s only.
Fitness First also runs a 'bring a friend free on Friday' offer which gets a mate in for a free workout. You just need to sign them in at reception. (Excludes Tottenham Court Road, Baker Street, South Kensington, Clapham Junction Station, London Bridge Cottons, Thomas More Square, Highbury, Angel, Streatham, Charing Cross and Gracechurch Street branches.)
8 clubs in England
Smaller chain FitSpace* has eight branches in England. It's a no-frills gym, but several MoneySavers are fans.
Just fill in the form by 31 March 2016 to get your free MSE Blagged 3-day pass.
65 clubs across England and Scotland
It's one pass per person and you must book an appointment at your local Nuffield Health gym in order to take up the offer. The pass is only valid for seven days, so wait until you're ready before you sign up.
43 clubs in England and Ireland
Get a free one-day pass by filling out your details on the LA Fitness website. You'll need to activate your pass within seven days of completing the form.
It's limited to one pass per person. This is an ongoing offer.
24 clubs across England and Scotland
Get a free one-day gym pass for you and a friend by filling in your details on the Q-Hotels website.
Q-Hotels is a chain of 4* hotels which has 24 health clubs across England and Scotland. Find your nearest health club.
17 clubs in the north of England
Request a free one-day guest pass by filling in the form at Total Fitness.
There are 17 branches in the north of England, including Chester, Hull and Liverpool.
Thistle Hotels: free 1-day pass
13 clubs across England and Scotland
Request a free one-day gym pass by filling in your details on the Thistle Hotels website.
Thistle Hotels is a chain of hotels, which has 13 leisure clubs across England and Scotland. Find your nearest leisure club.
25 clubs across England and Scotland
Xercise4Less has 25 branches, mostly in the north of England, including Leeds, Wakefield and Wigan.
Fill in the form to get your free 1-day pass.
Free bootcamps & outdoor classes
140 locations across mainland UK
These outdoor boot camp style sessions can really put you through your paces. Just fill in the British Military Fitness free seven-day pass form by 31 Dec 2016.
Do note that while the form may appear to be for one free class only, your confirmation email will have all the correct details of the seven-day deal - as long as you enter the code MSE2016.
You can go to an unlimited amount of outdoor classes, within seven consecutive days. You must be 16 or over and not a current or past BMF member. Find your nearest.
You must go to your first class within two days of receiving your email confirmation, or otherwise the rest of the trial will be cancelled - so wait until you're ready to get started before signing up.
Park Lives: free yoga, pilates, Zumba & more
Outdoor classes across England & Scotland
If you go online to free fitness initiative ParkLives, you can sign up for completely free exercise classes for adults and children held in more than 130 outdoor locations across Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Newham in London and Nottingham (find your nearest park).
There are 69 different classes to choose from, including yoga, pilates, Zumba, bootcamp, family rounders & baby ballet. Classes like this would normally cost £5-£10ish, but it's worth bearing in mind that all ParkLives sessions are outdoors - so if you fancy taking part, wrap up warm.
See our Park Lives deal for more info.
Our Parks: free yoga, Zumba, boxfit & more
Outdoor classes across London & Bedfordshire
If you go online to free fitness initiative Our Parks, you can sign up for completely free exercise classes for adults and children held in more than 50 locations across London and Bedfordshire (see ‘more info’ below for the full list).
There are 28 different classes to choose from, including yoga, pilates, Zumba, bootcamp, dance, tots tennis and kids fitness (see ‘more info’ for all classes included). It provides free group exercise classes mostly in parks, but also in community centres and libraries during winter.
Classes like this would normally cost £5-£10ish, but it's worth noting that some of the calmer classes in particular, would normally be indoors.
See our Our Parks deal for more info.
Pay-as-you-go from £5
PayasUgym* acts as a 'gym broker', selling pay-as-you-go passes for more than 2,000 gyms across the UK - from local council-run centres to posh spas. Gyms which feature on the site must offer at least a 10% discount on the cost of a day pass compared to going direct.
As an example, Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre is £9 per visit via PayasUgym, but it's £10 per visit if you go direct.
Just enter your postcode to browse nearby gyms, which each have a star rating from other users. Then register and load your account to buy passes. It sends an email and text message - flash either at reception within 30 days of buying. What's good about PayasUgym is if you can't make a session, you can cancel for a refund.
Call the gym to check it's not cheaper direct. If you use PayasUgym, please tell us your experiences.
Here are some of the main pay-as-you-go gym options:
The Gym - day pass from £4.99. The Gym has more than 70 branches in England, Scotland and Wales. Gyms are open 24 hours a day and MoneySavers say equipment is plentiful and high quality.
Simply Gym - day pass from £6. A fairly new player, Simply Gym has 12 centres including Cheltenham, Reading and Wrexham. It offers classes to non-members for £4, and a day pass is £6. However if you go via gym broker PayasUgym*, you can currently get a discounted day pass for £5.40.
Pure Gym - day pass from £5.99. No-frills chain Pure Gym has more than 115 branches across the UK, including several in London, Edinburgh and Manchester.
EasyGym - day pass from £6.99. If you live in Birmingham, Cardiff, Southampton or London (and like the colour orange), EasyGym is another option. It offers day passes from £6.99, depending on the location of the club.
Slash the cost of gym membership
If you can do without saunas, jacuzzis and fit gym instructors, there's been an explosion in no-frills gyms, with prices from £10-£20/month. You can usually cancel any time and MoneySavers' feedback is hugely positive.
More are opening every month, so if you can't find one near you, check again later. The other boon is that there's often no minimum contract length, though you may need to bring your own towel, shower gel and padlock for the locker!
Read more on cheap-as-chips chains:
Xercise4Less: from £10/month OR £5/DAY
Xercise4Less has 20 branches, mostly in the north of England, including Leeds, Wakefield and Wigan.
Off-peak membership starts from £10/month with a 12-month contract, or £15/month with a 1-month contract. Peak membership is from £15/month for a 12-month contract, or £20/month with a 1-month contract.
- How many branches? 20
- Pay as you go? £5 a day
- Joining fee: £20 admin fee
- Cost per month: £10-£20/month
Smaller chain FitSpace has eight branches in England. There are no receptions (you just swipe a card), but several MoneySavers are fans.
Membership's £12-£14 per month on a 12-month contract or around £20 per month with no lock-in. You still need to give 30 days' notice to cancel, and there's a £29 joining fee. Alternatively, you can buy annual membership for £145 - £170 when you pay up-front.
- How many branches? 9
- Pay as you go option? £10 a day
- Joining fee: £29
- Cost per month: £12-£20
No-frills chain Pure Gym has more than 115 branches across the UK, including several in London, Edinburgh and Manchester. MoneySavers have been impressed by the facilities, though say the gyms can be busy at peak times.
Membership costs between £10 and £26 per month, which includes classes. You can cancel at any time.
- How many branches? 90+ UK-wide
- Pay as you go? From £6 a day
- Joining fee: £25
- Cost per month: £10-£26 per month
The Gym has more than 70 branches in England, Scotland and Wales. Monthly membership costs £11 to £21 per month, depending on location, and there's no minimum contract length.
Gyms are open 24 hours a day and MoneySavers say equipment is plentiful and high quality.
- How many branches? 40+
- Pay as you go? £5 a day
- Joining fee: £20
- Cost per month: £11-£21 per month
EasyGym: from £16/month OR £7/DAY
If you like the colour orange and live near Birmingham, Cardiff, Slough or London, EasyGym is another option. Memberships start from £16/month or from £28/month including classes, and there's no lock-in. Alternatively, you can pay as you go from £7 a day.
- How many branches? 12
- Pay as you go? From £7 a day
- Joining fee: £25 (free at new clubs)
- Cost per month: £16-£32/mth
Simply Gym: from £17/month OR £6/day
A fairly new player to the team, Simply Gym has nine centres including Cheltenham, Reading and Wrexham. Memberships start from £17/month including free classes. There's a £20 joining fee, but no cancellation costs.
Gym broker PayasUgym* offers Simply Gym day passes for £5.40 (normally £6) and a 30-day pass for £25. Although the 30-day pass is pricier than a monthly contract (normally £17-£20/month), if you just want to try the gym out for a month or two, it could work out cheaper as you don't have to pay the joining fee.
- How many branches? 9
- Pay as you go? £6 a day
- Joining fee: £20
- Cost per month: £17-£20/mth
1Life: from £20/month OR £5/day
Formerly called Harper Fitness, 1Life has 35 branches across the UK. Memberships start from £20/month and there's a £1 joining fee.
Pay-as-you-go starts from £1 for a swim, or just over £5 for using the gym.
- How many branches? 35
- Pay as you go? £5-£6 a day
- Joining fee: £1
- Cost per month: £20-£40/mth
Council gyms: from £20ish/month
Run by local councils, public leisure centres have refreshingly transparent pricing, often with no minimum contract length and pay-as-you go options.
While facilities are cheap 'n' cheerful, membership's usually under £30 a month. Also check out local universities and colleges, which often have gyms open to all, with good facilities at a fraction of private-chain prices.
Check on your local council's site to see what it offers. Use Gov.uk's local council finder.
Consider special short-term memberships
Longer trials are a good halfway house between paying as you go and signing up for a year's contract. They're usually more expensive than annual memberships, but you're free to go elsewhere once the trial's up, or to stop paying if you no longer go.
If you can't get a short-term membership direct from your local gym it's worth going via gym membership broker PayasUgym* which sells five-day, 30-day and 90-day passes for more than 1,500 gyms, including Simply Gym, Bannatyne's Health Clubs and Active4Less.
While a one month pass for Simply Gym in Reading costs £19.99 direct, there's a £20 joining fee. From PayasUgym, it's a bit more expensive at £25, but there's no joining fee and once your month's up, that's it.
Many are discounted, but how good it is depends on your local gym - just do a search in your area to find details. Always check what the gym offers directly too.
Exchange loyalty points for gym passes
Nectar Swim* lets you exchange your points for a pass to a local pool.
Normally, 500 Nectar points are worth £2.50 to spend at Sainsbury's. With Nectar Swim it's 300 points for a kids' pass or 500 points for an adult. You can also get a family pass (two adults and two children) for 1,500 points.
When you convert Clubcard vouchers into Tesco Boost* tokens they're worth up to four times as much as when you spend them in-store.
There's more on maximising Clubcard points and reclaiming lost vouchers in our Tesco Boost guide.
Cut the cost of year-long contracts
Swanky gyms want you to think contract prices are fixed. They're not. The gym sector is fiercely competitive, so there are tons of ways to slim down the price such as:
Haggle, haggle, haggle
Most gyms employ a commission-driven sales team to sign you up, making them a prime candidate for haggling.
Even phoning up to find out the costs of membership, we were asked our name, number, if we'd visited before and what our fitness goals were - the sale was on even for a quick enquiry.
Don't settle for the standard package. With a bit of chutzpah you should be able to slice a wedge off the cost, especially towards the end of the month, when sales staff need to meet targets.
Once you've got the price down as far as you think it'll go, ask for some free guest passes on top. MoneySavers say Fitness First is the easiest gym to haggle with. Virgin Active can also be flexible. LA Fitness usually won't lower the price but will throw in freebies such as towels and padlocks.
If you go for a gym tour and they won't agree to a deal that day, go home without signing up. The phone often rings a few days later with a new offer. For top phrases to grease the wheels, read the full High Street Haggling guide.
Check if your employer offers cheap corporate membership
Check if your employer offers subsidised gym membership or has a relationship with a gym, which can be at silly prices. If not, speak to your HR department and suggest they set up a deal.
Get a mate to refer you
Some clubs have 'refer-a-friend' offers featuring gifts such as towels, padlocks or even iPods. So if you've already decided to join, see if you know someone who belongs already before signing on the dotted line.
Find special new gym rates
New gyms often offer cheap 'founder' memberships to drum up custom. To find new gyms, scour industry publications such as Club Solutions and Health Club Management, as well as gyms' own sites. We found an Easy Gym due to open in Wandsworth in July 2015, which is offering a £5.99/month membership plan (other Easy Gym clubs cost £16-£35/month).
Most gyms provide cheaper membership during 'off-peak' hours. If it's possible for you to visit the gym during the daytime, work lunchtimes or at weekends, you could slash the cost.
If you're signing up for a year, remember sales staff often work on commission. So if their slick patter says "if you're ill you can freeze membership, or take a holiday", ask to see it in the contract.
If they say, "It's not there, but it's fine", make notes there which have legal weight and, if possible, get them to sign to show the promise.
Here's a list of what to check. For further examples, read this useful publication by the Office of Fair Trading (the OFT has since been replaced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), but its guidance is still relevant).
- Be wary of 1yr+ contracts. This is the biggie. Be wary of contracts longer than 12 months. Also check that they don't renew it automatically.
- Check what notice you need to give. Even when you're out of contract, gyms often require 30 days' notice to cancel. Make sure you understand these conditions.
- Ask what happens if your circumstances change. Check the policy if you are ill or injured, move house, get pregnant or change jobs. Think about the proof you'll need, such as a doctor's letter. Can you freeze your membership or transfer it to someone else?
- Ask what happens if your favourite service stops. If you're only joining because the gym offers a creche, Zumba dance classes or certain equipment, check if you're allowed to cancel if this is withdrawn.
- Note whether the contract automatically renews. Most contracts for gym membership automatically continue once the initial membership period expires. Make a note of the date by which you should inform them if you don't want this to happen.
- Check others' feedback. If you're taking a free trial, ask folk in the changing room if they're happy with the gym's contract or service (wait till they're decent first!).
Work out without a gym
Free apps and online fitness videos
If you have a smartphone, or can workout at home in front of your computer, there a plenty of free workout apps and online videos you can use to get fit for free. Take a look at our Deals Hunters blog to see our Top 10 free fitness videos and smartphone apps.
Free Sweaty Betty classes
Women's fitness shop Sweaty Betty offers free pilates, ballet and other fitness classes (for men and women) at more than 30 branches across the country. You need to sign up for its free membership card, then call or pop into your nearest store to book a session.
Buy some running shoes and run outside
Rather than paying for the privilege of being sandwiched between two sweaty blokes while listening to dodgy house music, run in the park for free. All you need is a pair of trainers. For free weekly 5k timed runs, check out Parkrun.
Do a work-out outside the gym
Examine your fitness requirements. You can run, cycle, do light weights (with those bottles of pop), yoga and a lot more without gym membership. Why not do workout DVDs with friends or see if there is an Outdoor Gym near you?
Buy your own weights or equipment using special discounts
Amazon often offers 75%+ reductions, yet it directs people to other areas, sending them to products with higher profit margins instead.
There's a geeky way to manipulate Amazon's web links to display all heavily-reduced bargains. All you need to do is fiddle with Amazon web addresses (URLs) to bring up lists of knockdown prices, eg, running gear 75%+ off*, fitness equipment 55%+ off* & Sportswear 75%+ off*. See the Amazon Discount Finder guide for full details.
If you are looking to start free weight lifting though, bear in mind it can be dangerous, so seek medical/professional help before you do yourself any injury!
Join the Debt-Free Wannabe Running Club
Join the Debt-Free Wannabe Running Club, where MoneySavers support and help each other reach their goals.
Tennis for free
Children, young people and families can get free tennis coaching sessions and free use of thousands of tennis courts across the UK with Tennis For Free. Free coaching sessions run at weekends and are suitable for all ages, with equipment also provided for free.
Your gym cancellation rights
Escaping a gym contract can be more difficult than outrunning Usain Bolt (even when he's only warming up). Sadly there's no one-set of rules when it comes to your cancellation rights, though gym-goers have been given more protection in recent years.
What rules there are are based on a hotchpotch of different guidelines, codes of conduct and legal precedents, so it's rarely black and white. But you SHOULD normally have some protection.
Your contract should not be longer than 12 months. In 2011, the High Court ruled it was unfair for gyms to tie in members for more than one year (see the Tens of thousands can cancel gym memberships and More gym-goers will find it easier to cancel contracts MSE news stories). If your contract's longer than a year, you may be able to challenge it.
You can also check to see if the Office of Fair Trading's (OFT's) guidelines on unfair terms, some of which we've listed below, apply. The OFT has since been replaced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), though these guidelines are likely to still be relevant.
- You MAY be able to cancel if your gym's made big changes. The OFT's guidelines say contracts are unfair if they allow clubs to supply something different from what was agreed, unless the change is minor. So if, for example, your gym closes its creche you may be able to leave.
- It's unfair if they've drastically hiked prices. If your contract says the club's allowed to make unrestricted membership fee hikes, this is likely to be considered unfair.
- The gym shouldn't auto-extend your contract. The guidance says it's unfair to automatically extend contracts, relying on people's inertia or ignorance.
- Membership terms should be clear. The OFT (now the CMA) told gyms that contracts should clearly explain minimum membership periods and notice periods. If the wording's unclear, you may have a case.
The following three rules should also apply. Six of the big chains – LA Fitness, Dave Whelan Sports Ltd, Harlands Group Ltd, Fitness First, David Lloyd's and Bannatyne's – agreed to them after an OFT investigation in 2013. They're also written into UKactive's code of practice, which more than 3,500 members are signed up to.
- If there's a change in circumstance you MAY be able to cancel. If a change in circumstance such as serious injury or job loss makes going to the gym difficult or unaffordable, you may be able to cancel mid-contract – though it'll depend on the nature of the change in circumstance.
- The gym shouldn't say it's a fixed contract length if it isn't. If membership automatically continues on a rolling basis after the initial period expires, the gym should be clear about this.
- The gym should be transparent about key membership features. For example, it should be clear about your cancellation rights, and this info should be provided upfront as part of the sales process.
If you think your gym isn't complying with these standards you can report it to the CMA.
MoneySavers' cancellation successes
Here's what some of you said when we asked you to let us know if you managed to cancel your gym membership:
My gym cancelled my membership during the 12-month contract period. I just went in and asked if they could because I was having to move away, and they did it straightaway, no problem.
I've been a member at Virgin Active for years, and now I've a new job, it's difficult to get out during the day, the classes I love have changed time so I'm hardly going these days. I decided to cancel and I was ready to argue. But I got an email to say it's all sorted and my membership will cease. Easy peasy!
A friend was four months into a 12-month contract and wasn't using the gym much. I advised him to write a letter asking if they would allow him out of the contract as he wasn't getting full use of his membership. A week later, he thanked me and said the gym had been brilliant and allowed him to terminate with no penalties.
Let us know how you got on in the Cheap Gym Membership forum discussion.
How to complain
If your gym isn't listed on the Resolver site yet, or you prefer to complain direct, try following the steps below:
Step 1: Complain in writing
If the gym won't play ball when you complain verbally, write a complaint letter and send it to the head office. Send all letters by recorded delivery, so you can prove they received it, and always save a copy.
Your letter should mention any unfair contract terms you think it may have. The OFT issued guidance about unfair terms in health and fitness clubs in 2002. Although this references an old law - the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations was replaced by the Consumer Rights Act in 2015 - the guidance is still relevant.
If you meet silence or the response is rubbish, write again and be persistent. For information or advice, try calling the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 0845 4040506.
Step 2: Complain to UKactive
Gyms that are members of the UKactive trade group agree to stick to the OFTs guidelines on unfair contracts.
If your gym's a member and you have not had any luck complaining directly, try contacting UKactive. As a trade association, it can offer further advice and in some cases may contact the gym on your behalf. Its worth a try, as it's free anyway.
Step 3: If all else fails: take 'em to court
Hopefully you will settle it. But if you strongly believe in your case, have tried all the steps above, and it still won't cancel your contract, taking it to the small claims court is a last resort, although it isn't for everyone. If you're a court novice, try to seek help from an informed friend or advice centre.
Yet before you get legal, you're expected to try to resolve things directly, and ideally send a 'letter before action' to say you are going to take them to court. If you don't try, the judge is likely to look unfavourably on your case, so always use the steps above first. For more on small claims rules, see the How to Complain guide.
Did this system work for you? If you managed to cancel your contract, please tell us about it in the Gym Cancelling discussion.