A Lawyer Tells Us How To Get Out Of That Damn Gym Contract
Joining a gym is a double-edged sword with a third, even sharper edge. You get to work out, you get to meet people, but you’re stuck in a binding contract that makes your phone contract seem like a casual handshake between friends. Why. Why is the gym contract so long and binding and—more importantly—how does one actually get out of this contract without legal repercussions?
After we had our lawyer persecute Mrs. Doubtfire, we sent him on another mission to dissect and explain the contractual obligations of those stuck in a gym contract. He asked us to keep him anonymous and to urge readers not to take this advice too seriously.
Are these contracts legally binding?
Having joined (and quit) numerous gyms in my career as a professional skinny-fat adult, I’ve signed a plethora of contracts only to ask myself the same question after I put down my fat John Hancock: how is this not illegal? Are these contracts legit?
“Gym and health club contracts, like any other legally binding agreement, are only 'illegal' where their terms are unconscionable or specifically prohibited by law. Federal and State Governments have investigated abusive practices in gym membership contracts in the past. Nearly every state has specific regulations that set limits on what terms are acceptable in gym membership contracts—if an agreement does not comply with your state’s specific regulations, it is likely void and unenforceable.”
Unfortunately, that means it's basically always legal.
“So long as a gym membership contract complies with state regulations and you are not induced to sign it under deceptive circumstances, it has the same force and effect as any other contract.”
Why are they so insanely strict?
It seems like it’s easier to get out of major motion picture deals than it is to end a gym contract. Equinox states in their FAQ that you can’t even use the speediness of the Internet to cancel—you have to do it in person: “You can cancel [in the facility], with a manager, by giving the appropriate notice, filling out a cancellation form, and paying a pro-rate to stop your billing.” Notice? Pro-rate? Appropriate notice? All for a room full of treadmills? Why is this contract so hard to break?
"Assuming all the terms are legal, it is our own fault for agreeing to these contracts that perpetuate these ‘strict rules.’"
“Ultimately, most gyms likely find that allowing cancellation without any consequences is problematic and administratively burdensome. Businesses are incentivized to get consumers on the hook for the largest possible commitment that is both legal and practical. Assuming the terms are legal, it is our own fault for agreeing to these contracts that perpetuate these ‘strict rules.’”
Be wary of the perks
If something sounds too good to be true, it is. Free sauna, free classes, free pool, Free Willy?! Always, always, always take everything these guys say with a grain of salt, says our lawyer friend.
“Aside from the terms of the contracts themselves, the sales pitch' you get when you sign up can be troublesome. For example, gym employees may misrepresent the facilities or classes that are available or they may engage in high-pressure sales tactics to force you into a longer-term contract.”
“A gym membership contract, like most other agreements, may be void and unenforceable if you are induced to sign it by any willfully false or misleading information."
I once had a guy swear to me that my membership cost $160 a year, [and it] ended up being $160 a month. He laughed and acted shocked when I brought this point up. Don’t get duped, but if you do, there’s good news:
“A gym membership contract, like most other agreements, may be void and unenforceable if you are induced to sign it by any willfully false or misleading information, representation, or advertising by the gym. If you feel that you have been subject to aggressive and possibly illegal sales tactics, your best bet is to contact your State Attorney General’s Office or the Better Business Bureau to lodge a complaint.”
Read the fine print
There's always a tiny, little clause that states you can’t get out of the gym contract without a signed, notarized, rabbi-blessed letter. But, like any other contract, you deserve your own copy.
“If you don’t have a copy, ask your health club for one—they shouldn’t refuse to give it to you. In an ideal world we would all read these contracts before we signed them. By (most states') laws, the contract must tell you what facilities and services are available and give you certain rights to opt out or cancel the contract after you have signed up. So, reading it at the outset can really help you if you [ultimately] have buyer’s remorse down the road.”
The painless ways to break the contract
There doesn’t have to be a huge song and dance associated with getting out quickly—you can legally opt out any time if you meet any of the following criteria:
“Most state regulations allow you to cancel at any time in certain circumstances such as: disability (or death, of course), if you move more than 25 miles from the facility and cannot transfer the contract to a comparable facility, or if the facility ceases to offer the services listed in the contract.”
"Generally, there is a very short period after you sign the membership contract that you can cancel, no questions asked."
The whole thing makes you wonder if gym contracts are as hard to get out of as other contacts, but our lawyer says contracts all across the board are a pain in the ass.
“There are specific state regulations that force gyms to allow cancellations in certain circumstances (your gym may offer something more generous, which is why you want to obtain a copy if you don’t have one already). Generally, there is a very short period after you sign the membership contract that you can cancel, no questions asked. In New York, it’s three days; in California, it's five.”
So, how do you get out of it?
Assuming you haven’t broken your leg off or taken that job in Boise, how does one get out of a contract without a total shit storm?
“The path of least resistance is to speak with your manager before 'flexing' your rights (I can pun). Often, you’ll find that if you have a legitimate reason for canceling, such as disability, you’re moving, or you are seriously upset with the services offered, a manager will be willing to work with you and find a solution. Personally, I’ve found that many gyms are willing to ‘freeze’ your contract in certain circumstances.
I moved into a building with a gym for a year, froze my membership, and when I moved out, renewed it. There may be more flexibility with corporate plans as well. So, reading it at the outset can really help you if you have buyer’s remorse down the road.”
What would happen if you just stopped paying?
You heard me. What if you just...stopped paying?
“Your gym may play nice for a while and not deny you access right away. During that time, they will likely ask you to pay your overdue balance by calling or e-mailing you at the number you provided in your membership contract.”
"Debt collectors can be relentless, even if the amount due is quite small."
“If you refuse to pay (or never answer a request for payment), the gym will probably cancel your membership. It is unlikely that the gym itself will go through the trouble of suing you for the balance.”
Hey that sounds easy, but unfortunately: “They will sell your balance to a debt collector. Debt collectors can be relentless, even if the amount due is quite small.” Damn it.
Jeremy Glass is a staff writer at Supercompressor and relies on the short walk from his desk to the bathroom for exercise.
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