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New year, new me.
Or so the saying goes…
The new year offers opportunities for Washingtonians to improve themselves, and for many, that means eating healthier and exercising more. But how many of us actually commit to a new regimen over the course of the entire year?
Plus, what do you need to know about local gym contracts if you want to become a member? D.C.’s Attorney General Karl Racine has sued the operators of Washington Sports Club for their “misleading” cancellation policies. We’ll discuss tips on assessing gym plans and pricing models.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Todd Miller Professor of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health; Director of the Weight Management and Human Performance Laboratory, George Washington University's Ashburn campus
- Benjamin Wiseman Director, Office of Consumer Protection at Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast, we'll talk about how fitness organizations and boutique gyms can be more inclusive of people of different body types, races and gender identities. But first, we're talking about how gyms motivate you to work out or don't. Some methods are more aggressive than others, and others have been even accused of misleading new members about sign up and cancellation fees and policies, including a well-known local sports club chain. Joining me by phone now is Ben Wiseman. Ben Wiseman is the director of the Office of Consumer Protection at DC's Office of Attorney General, which is suing the operator of that chain, Washington Sports Club. Ben Wiseman, thank you for joining us.
BEN WISEMANGood afternoon. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIBen Wiseman, convincing someone to join a gym always involves, well, a little persuasion, but according to your department, Washington Sports Club crossed the line. How?
WISEMANThat's right. Last week, the Office of the Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Washington Sports Club, alleging that the company mislead consumers about their cancellation policies. Primarily, representatives told consumers that they could cancel for free and at any time, when, in fact, Washington Sports Club was requiring six weeks’ notice, charging cancellation fees ranging from $10 to $99. And, in addition, we alleged that consumers were induced to sign up with extremely low signup fees. But then once they join, they say it's additional fees that weren't disclosed and that they didn't know about.
NNAMDIHow many complaints did you get from Washingtonians?
WISEMANSo, in the past two years, we've received dozens of complaints from consumers in the District, alleging similar conduct regarding, you know, the inability to cancel their memberships, being told things about cancellation fees and policies and practices that weren't, in fact, true.
NNAMDIThis comes after the company settled a 2016 case over similar concerns. What happened then?
WISEMANThat's right. So, in 2016 our office investigated Washington Sports Club, and we found that the company was failing to tell consumers about their policies, both when signing up, but, in particular, when consumers attempted to cancel but hadn't followed the proper steps. So, we heard from consumers that believed they had cancelled their membership and then would only find out a month later when they received their credit card bill that they were, in fact, continuing to be charged for their memberships to Washington Sports Club.
WISEMANSo, following that investigation, we entered into a settlement with the company that required the company to inform consumers of its cancellation policies when consumers sign up, and also when they seek to cancel their memberships, and also not to make any misleading or contrary representations to consumers about their cancellation policies.
NNAMDIAnd there are a lot of fitness clubs here in our region. What kinds of issues and complaints do you generally get along these same lines?
WISEMANWe receive a lot of complaints by just consumers not understanding the terms of their membership. So, what we really recommend consumers to do is to make sure you get a copy of the contract or membership agreement. In the District, consumers have a legal right to receive a copy of a contract or service agreement. And we really recommend, when joining a gym, you get a copy of that contract, so that you can carefully review it and find out exactly what you're going to be charged for.
NNAMDIHow do you go about investigating something like this? A lot of this must be based on hearsay. The gym client says the gym told them one thing, and the gym says, no, look at the fine print.
WISEMANSo, when we receive a consumer complaint, oftentimes, we will collect information from the consumer, and we'll try to mediate that complaint. We have a mediation service that we run through the Office of the Attorney General. And consumers that file complaints, we attempt to mediate those complaints. We also gather information from the consumers. And also, the Office of the Attorney General has the power to issue subpoenas to the company to compel companies to produce documents. So, we'll both obtain information from consumers, and also seek documents through a more formal investigative process from companies themselves.
NNAMDIHere's Erin in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Erin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERINHi. I have a gym membership with LA Fitness, and I wanted to cancel it. So, apparently, I had to go in during the gym hours, when they're open, when the manager was in the office, as well, to fill out a cancellation form, which is really difficult with my 9:00 to 5:00 job. So, what I ended up just having to do in order to stop paying for it every month was change my debit card number and cancel my debit card.
NNAMDIWow. You never were able to go in at the appropriate time? Is that what you were saying?
NNAMDI(overlapping) Because the time was so limited?
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Bill in DC, who says: Many gyms don't make their fee information available on their website. In those cases, how can we find out what their standard costs are? Any advice for Bill, Ben Wiseman?
WISEMANYeah. Again, you know, when you go to sign up for a membership, it's just really important to review the contract, because all the fees and any additional charges, you know, must be laid out in that contract and membership agreement. So, we recommend consumers go, make sure they're looking at their contracts. And, again, if you have any questions or any concerns with your membership or Erin's story about having trouble cancelling a membership, you should call our Office of the Attorney General. Our consumer protection hotline is 202-442-9828, and we can try to help you and walk you through that process.
NNAMDIIn this lawsuit, what are you asking Washington Sports Club to do? What are you hoping to get on behalf of people who felt that they were taken advantage of by the gym?
WISEMANPrimarily, as in all of our consumer cases, is we're seeking to make sure that consumers are made whole again. So, we're asking for restitution for consumers that may have paid a cancellation fee that they weren't told about, may have been continued to charge for their membership when they thought they had effectively cancelled. But we'll also be seeking a court order to make sure that Washington Sports Club has to stop these practices and follow the District's law. And we'll also be seeking a penalty against Washington Sports Club to defer -- to deter similar conduct both by Washington Sports Club, as well as other businesses in the District.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, though, Ben, gyms to do have a right to protect themselves with rules about ending a contract, including having a cancellation period. Where do you see that line?
WISEMANSo, in the District, the District's consumer laws make it unlawful to make any misrepresentations or deceptive statements. So, you know, we recognize that companies, you know, have cancellation policies, but it's just important that those companies are transparent with those cancellation policies and consumers are made well aware of those cancellation policies when they're entering into these agreements.
NNAMDIOkay. Ben Wiseman is the director of the Office of Consumer Protection at the DC's Office of Attorney General, which is suing the operator of the Washington Sports Club. Thank you so much for joining us.
WISEMANThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Todd Miller. He's a professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. Todd Miller, thank you for joining us.
TODD MILLERThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIHow popular -- now that we've talked about membership contracts, let's dig a little deeper into what data says about who actually goes to the gym. How popular is this time of year for signing up for gym and other fitness plans?
MILLERWell, obviously, now is probably the most popular time of the year for people to sign up for gyms. I mean, everybody kind of knows that. The overwhelming majority, though, of people who do sign up for gym membership or decide to start exercising -- or any other resolution, for that matter -- usually by mid-February, about the six-week mark, the gyms are back down to the levels of, you know, participation that they were prior to the new year. So, very few people actually stick to those resolutions. I think by the end of the year, probably only about 5 to 8 percent of people are actually successful in having some type of permanent behavior change.
NNAMDISo, if you're going to make a New Year's resolution and you're going to be in the gym for approximately six weeks, often, these gyms are seeking to make sure they don't really lose money on this operation, and hence some of the cancellation policies become a little complicated. Here's what happened with Chad in Silver Spring. Chad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHADYeah, I was just -- had a situation with Bally Total Fitness which, I believe, is no longer with us or bought out, that I had cancelled my gym membership and then got a bill for five years worth of membership about five years later from the cancellation. We were planning to go to court and had representation, and luckily, after digging through every little piece of paper I had, I found a documentation of the cancellation and was able to bring it forward to them, and they had to back down.
CHADSo, I guess my advice would be that when you cancel, get it documented, and that might've been said already, but have that with you. And keep it with you. Don't throw it out, because they charged me five years after the cancellation. And I was lucky enough that I had just thrown it in a drawer somewhere and was able to...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Indeed, I suspect good advice is never to accept a word-of-mouth cancellation if the manager happens to say, okay, you're cancellation is good. No, you've got to have a document stating that. But Chad, thank you very much for your call. Todd, the fitness landscape has really changed in the past decade or so. When it comes to retention rates, what's the difference between, say, big box gyms like Gold's across the street from here, or LA Fitness, and boutique fitness centers like Pure Barre, SoulCycle or CrossFit?
MILLERWell, if you think about it from a business perspective, if you're a big box gym like a Gold's Gym, LA Fitness, Bally's, those kinds of things, you know, really if your goal is to make money you want to sell memberships and hope nobody shows up, right? That's really the key, there. You know, bring in as much money as possible with as little overhead as possible. And those types of facilities are really -- I think the kind of person who does best at those kinds of facilities are people who are okay exercising on their own, who have a lot of self, internal motivation, that kind of stuff.
MILLERBut, like you said, as you see these -- over the past decade or so, you've seen more of these boutique-style gyms opening up, that most of those don't have memberships. A lot of those are month-to-month-type contracts. And usually the reason that people really like that model is the sense of community within those gyms. And CrossFit is probably the best example of this. There's something about having a group of people who are all likeminded and headed in the same direction that really helps with exercise adherence, if you're somebody who likes that kind of atmosphere. So, I think that probably has a lot to do with why those types of fitness facilities are becoming so popular.
NNAMDIWell, boutique gyms, as you point out, seem to attract more regulars. They have that sense of community but they however seem more concentrated in areas like 14th Street Northwest, Shaw, NoMa, neighborhoods that have been both development -- seen both development and gentrification in recent years. What about other parts of town?
MILLERWell, I think a lot of it also depends on economics. If the population in that part -- because a lot of times, those boutique places are more expensive than big box gyms. I mean, sometimes they're not, but for the most part, I think it's safe to say that they are. So, it would stand to reason that areas that are of higher socioeconomic status would have more of those businesses, whereas in lower SES communities, you might have things like -- there might be more prevalence of YMCAs or those kinds of facilities, public facilities, rather than private facilities.
NNAMDILet's take a look from the inside at -- David in Washington, DC, who has an insider's perspective, reportedly. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHey, Kojo. I'm sorry, I'm a bit horse. I've been fighting a cold. (unintelligible) for a while, and what I'd like to tell your listeners is that, I'll be very honest, you don't really need a gym to stay fit, okay. You know, you can do this stuff in your yard, in your house, whatever it is. And the reason the gyms make money is because they sell you a dream. They sell you a picture, but most people cannot reach their dreams. So, as an insider, I can tell you that the way they make -- the best customer of a gym can have is a customer that never comes to the gym...
NNAMDI(overlapping) That's exactly what Todd just said.
DAVIDAnd let me tell you, the worst customer at a gym is the guy that's there every single day. That's the worst customer. So, if you're going to go...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Why is he the worst customer?
DAVIDWhy? Because he's using the facility. He's using the towels. He's using the showers. He's using all the resources. Right?
NNAMDIOh, (laugh), okay. He's cutting into the profit margin.
DAVIDYes, yes. So, what I recommend is, like, the way I came to a conclusion with fitness is, it's a lifestyle. It's simply a lifestyle, okay. If you -- you got to make a choice. It's, like, you know, when I decided to be in fitness, I decided that I'm going to go into this with all my heart and my soul. So, I'd like to go ahead and tell your listeners that if you decide to make a commitment, okay, make a commitment. Because when you make a commitment, you are holding yourself to that.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, we'll be hearing later in the broadcast from people who are following your line of thought. But, Todd, a lot of times, people are motivated to join gyms, because they feel that they have some skin in the game, so to speak (laugh), that it'll motivate them to do it more. But back to location, we were talking about location. What role does affordability play in who works out regularly?
MILLERIt doesn't play as much of a role as people think it does. So, we did some research, oh, probably about 10 years ago where we were looking at reasons for why people join gyms or why they don't join gyms. And one of the most popular reasons why people said they don't join gyms is because of cost, that those are too expensive. But we also discovered that when you gave people free memberships, they didn't use the gym to any greater degree than if they joined on their own. So, while people think that cost is a big factor, and that may prevent them from joining, even if they have the best intentions and they are willing to pay for it, their dropout rate is the same as somebody who doesn't have those issues. So, cost is probably not the factor.
NNAMDIAnd so, even if it's a free gym, you'll find the dropout rate at a free gym essentially the same as the dropout rate at gyms that people have to pay for.
MILLERYes. And not necessarily the dropout rate, but also the impetus to use it in the first place. If you just give somebody a free membership, that doesn't mean they're going to go.
NNAMDIHere is Barbara in Arlington, Virginia. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAI guess I'm speaking from a totally different community. I've been athletic my whole life. I was a runner, and I quit running to save my knees, and I ended up joining the gym because of the group exercise courses. And I am a complete follower. I was at one gym for 17 years. I just moved to Arlington and I joined the Gold's Gym, which I love, because there a lot of different ones, and I can always find a class somewhere. And there's a complete community of people there who look forward to seeing each other at the same class. And I just don't understand where these guys are coming from saying that, you know, people who use the gym are the least valued at the gym. I feel very valued by my instructors. They're happy to have students come in and take the classes.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We got a Tweet from Lacey, who says: I looked into joining Gold's, and the manager told me they had no contracts, but that I couldn't leave within the first three months without penalty, and I had to give at least three months notice that I wanted to leave or face a penalty. It sounds a lot like a contract to me (laugh). What actually works, Todd, in encouraging people to continue working out?
MILLERWell, we know it's easier to say what doesn't work than what does work. For example, we know that New Year's resolutions don't work, and I think -- at least when it comes to fitness, and I think that's largely because people are motivated for the wrong reasons. They're motivated by a date on a calendar rather than some internal drive. You know, your last caller mentioned that she was an athlete her whole life, so she identifies herself as somebody who's fit and somebody who's a regular exerciser. So, for her to go to a gym, it's very simple. It's who she is. It's how she defines herself.
MILLERThe overwhelming majority of people do not define themselves that way. They see fitness as something that they should be doing, not necessarily something they really want to do. So, they want to be different, but they don't want to change, so when January 1 rolls around, you know, they're motivated by that date. And then as soon as that date is gone, really, their source of motivation has now passed, as well. So, it's interesting, 23 percent of people -- about 23 to 25 percent of people who say they're going to join a gym after New Year's actually never go within the first -- you know, never follow through with a resolution, 25 percent.
MILLERSo, I think really what works is most often -- I shouldn't say most often, but one of the things that definitely works is, for example, if a doctor gives you a scare that you need to improve your health, that seems to be a big motivator. It usually has to be something internal that motivates you to want to go and make a lifestyle change. A lot of people get fed up with how they look. They think, you know, they need to lose weight. They reach some level of disgust, where they say something has to change, and that's really what drives the change.
NNAMDIAnd community does seem to help, that sense of people coming together.
MILLER(overlapping) Certainly, it absolutely seems to help. It definitely seems to help. If you're a typical person who's not a regular exerciser and doesn't identify as somebody who's a regular exerciser, you're probably going to get much better results if you're in with a bunch of other likeminded people who are trying to reach the same type of goal.
NNAMDITodd Miller is a professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. Todd, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about how fitness organizations and boutique gyms can be more inclusive of people of different body types, races and gender identities. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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