Many insurers will offer discounts on health club dues

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Q: What are some good workout options that don't involve bank-breaking gym fees?

A: Consider alternatives to big health club chains.

A survey in Consumer Reports ' February issue shows customers are most satisfied by independent yoga, dance and pilates studios, which as a group had a median monthly fee of $54. Life Time Fitness ($50 to $60 a month), was ranked first among national chains in customer satisfaction, followed by at-work gyms, community centers ($25), Jewish Community Centers ($57), school gyms and the YMCA/YWCA ($42), which all ranked higher than any other national chains mentioned by the 10,000 survey respondents.

"These places had more satisfied members than all but one of the big chains. It was pretty amazing how consistently they shook out that way," said Jamie Kopf Hirsh, an associate editor for health at Consumer Reports . "With health clubs, there doesn't seem to be any correlation between what you pay and how happy you are or how good of a value you are getting."

Mr. Hirsh said 12 secret shoppers deployed by Consumer Reports found that balking at gym fees can get you a lower price. One "customer" checking out a Bally Total Fitness location in Florida was quoted three different prices, so it pays to haggle. She also recommended customers resist the pressure to sign up quickly to take advantage of promotions, as there's always a new sale on the way.

Another good way to lessen the blow of a hefty gym cost is to get a discount through your health insurance plan. Many insurers offer discounts on health-club dues and other incentives to encourage members to get in shape, which saves them money in claims in the long run.

Humana Inc. estimates that half of all medical expenses today can be traced to lifestyle problems such as excess weight, stress and smoking. The insurer gives free gym memberships to seniors as part of the preventive health offerings in its SilverSneakers Fitness Program and to employees of the Broward County Schools as part of a pilot program in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. If the Broward County Schools program is successful, Humana spokesman Mitch Lubitz said the company could expand it to other employer programs.

Aetna Inc. and Cigna Corp. offer all their members discounts to the Global Fit network of more than 10,000 gyms, which includes Town Sports International's 151 locations in the Northeast, Bally's 354 locations and Curves International's 7,132 clubs. Cigna offers discounts of up to 60 percent under standard plans in its Healthy Rewards program, which offers gym discounts as well as deals on diet and smoking cessation programs. Aetna offers all of its 16 million medical plan members a discount of 25 percent to 30 percent for Global Fit memberships.

Insurers from Wellpoint Inc. to certain Blue Cross Blue Shield groups also offer discounts on gym memberships. Whether a discount is offered, and how much is reimbursed, is decided by the employer in most cases. Local Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates determine what is offered under its plans.

The best way to find out whether you can sign up is to check the details of your employer's plan. Some require employees to prove they actually went to the gym while others just require proof that they paid for the membership.

For a sense of how many employers are offering discounts, Blue Cross and Blue Shield in North Carolina conducted a survey last summer and found that roughly 15 percent of about 400 employers offered discounts. The larger a company was, the more likely it was to offer a discount.

For example, of 400 North Carolina companies that had more than 50 employees, the percentage offering a discount rose to 37 percent. Of the larger employers, 23 percent had on-site gyms, according to spokesman Mark Stinneford.

Consumer Reports reminds its readers to consider the cheapest choice. Walking, running or working out at home are not only free, they also help people create the regularity that is essential to a successful workout routine.

ON THE NET

- Global Fit gym search: www.globalfit.com/club/eligibility.asp


- Cigna Healthy Rewards Program: www.cigna.com/our-plans/programs/healthy-rewards.html


- Humana's Silver Sneakers Program: www.silversneakers.com/Default.aspx


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