Looking for a way to lose a few pounds or to get in shape? Health experts agree that the safest, most effective way to lose weight is to eat moderately and to exercise regularly. With this in mind, many consumers join health clubs, diet centers, and martial arts studios for help in meeting those goals.

Before choosing and joining a health club, do some homework to make sure the club will work out for you. And before signing on the dotted line, be sure you know how to exercise your health club rights.

Selecting A Health Club

Things to do:

  • Inspect the facilities.
  • Ask club members about the club.
  • Check the club's reputation with the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General's Office.

Questions to ask:

  • How crowded is it when you will use it most?
  • What are the instructor's qualifications?
  • What are the club's hours?

The contract:

Read The Contract Carefully! Take the time to read over the contract, and understand what you are signing. Be sure to get any verbal agreements in writing. By law, a health club may not offer a contract for a period longer than 36 months. They also cannot require payments over a period of one month past the length of the contract. For example, if the contract is for one year, the payments cannot be for more than 13 months. Payments must be required at equal intervals, and not more frequently than one per month. A contract must also include a consumer's rights to cancellation.

Payments

Many health clubs prefer to bill consumers automatically, either by charging the payments to their credit cards or by electronically withdrawing them from their bank accounts. Automatic billing can be a direct benefit to both consumers and health clubs. It allows consumers to save time preparing payments and to eliminate the chance of being charged fees for late payments. In addition, it affords health clubs a cost efficient billing system. However, problems may arise when consumers cancel their memberships. In fact, the majority of consumer complaints and inquiries about health clubs with Consumer Affairs concern automatic billing issues that arise when consumers terminate their memberships.

Automatic Billing:

If you are concerned about automatic billing, ask about other payment methods. By law, health clubs may not require consumers to pay with electronic fund transfers. ( M.G.L., c 167B, §7(3)

To stop an authorized electronic transfer, you must inform your financial institution orally or in writing 3 business days before the scheduled date of the transfer. You should notify the health club in writing in advance as well .

If you have legally canceled your membership, yet still are charged through your credit card or debited through your bank account, you have recourse.

You must notify the credit card company or financial institution within 60 days of being billed. (For credit card protection you must put this in writing; for electronic fund transfers, the institution may require it in writing but only if it informs you of its requirement when you notify it of the error.)

Credit or Charge Cards:

The Federal Fair Credit Billing Act requires credit card companies to investigate your billing complaint within 90 days, and you will not need to pay the disputed amount during the investigation.

Electronic Fund Transfers:

Massachusetts law requires financial institutions to investigate your complaint within 10 days. If the investigation requires more time, your account will be provisionally recredited with the amount in dispute.

The Right To Cancel

By law, the following notice must be clearly written on the contract:

Consumers' Right to Cancellation. You May Cancel This Contract Without Any Penalty or Further Obligation by Causing a Writen Notice of Your Cancellation to be Delivered in Person or Postmarked by Certified or Registered United States Mail Within Three (3) Business Days of the Date of This Contract or the Date of Your Receipt to the Address Specified in the Contract.

You may also cancel your health club contract for any of the following reasons:

  • You move your residence or your place of employment more than 25 miles from any health club operated by the seller, or a similar club that will accept your membership;
  • Upon a doctor's order, you cannot physically or medically receive the services because of significant physical or medical disability for a period in excess of three months;
  • In case of your death; or
  • The health club services promised are not available due to:
    • failure to open a planned health club or location;
    • closing of a health club or location; or,
    • substantial change in the operation of a health club or location.

How To Cancel

Send by certified mail, return-receipt requested, or deliver in person, a written notice of your cancellation. Clearly state that you are canceling the contract, as is your right under M.G.L., c. 93, section 81.

The notice of cancellation must be accompanied by

  • all contract forms;
  • all membership cards;
  • all other documents or evidence of membership; and,
  • reasonable evidence of the reason for the cancellation, if it is beyond the 3 day cooling-off period.

All money must be refunded within 15 days of the club's receipt of your notice of cancellation. However, the club may retain that part of the total contract price proportional to the amount of time that you used the services or facilities prior to cancellation. After cancellation, you are no longer liable for any further obligation under a credit loan agreement which was executed to pay for all or part of the price of the health club contract.

Exercise Your Rights

As a consumer, you are protected against false advertising and misrepresentations. If these rights or the rights outlined above have been violated, you may sue in court for recovery of damages or other relief, including triple damages, to the extent provided under the Consumer Protection Act, M.G.L., c 93A.

Before heading to court, you may want to file a request for mediation through your local consumer group. Mediation is an informal way to resolve disputes between two parties. Your local consumer group is listed in the blue pages of your phone book and on our website. Contact Consumer Affairs for a list of mediation services in your area.