Raise the bar on your fitness-shopping skills

OK, time to fess up: How many of you who vowed to exercise regularly in the new year have already lost interest? Perhaps the problem stems from not knowing how to find the right exercise equipment or the right gym.

If your prefer to sweat alone, not far from the kids or the home office, buying fitness equipment may be your best move. When looking for a treadmill or other equipment, keep in mind these tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

Don't expect that an exercise machine can provide long-lasting, easy, "no-sweat" results in a short time. That's advertising, not reality.

Ignore claims that a product can burn fat off certain problem areas - such as the hips and stomach.

Be skeptical of before-and-after pictures of "satisfied" customers.

Do the math before jumping at offers such as "three easy payments of...." or "only $49.95 a month." The advertised cost may not include shipping and handling fees or sales tax.

Get all the details on warranties, guarantees, and return policies. If you have to pay shipping to return a bulky piece of equipment, a "30-day money-back guarantee" may not sound so sweet.

Call the company's toll-free number to find out how easy it is to reach a representative and how helpful he or she is.

If you prefer company while you're feeling the burn, consider joining a fitness club instead.

But buyer beware. The FTC has heard many complaints from the 33 million people who belong to approximately 17,000 gyms in the US today. Their biggest gripes: high-pressure sales tactics, misrepresentations of facilities and services, broken cancellation and refund clauses, and lost membership fees as a result of clubs going out of business.

Judy Lederman learned a costly lesson when she joined a gym in Scarsdale, N.Y., recently to take martial arts classes for $75 a month. The first two classes were great, she says, but subsequent sessions were abruptly canceled.

When Ms. Lederman complained, she was told the classes were originally advertised as "tentative" - a word that didn't exist in the contract she signed. After a heated exchange with club officials, Lederman dropped her membership and canceled her credit card to avoid future charges.

Looking back, Lederman laments that she didn't pay more attention to her instincts. "This gym gave me the 'macho creep' impression from the get-go, but I listened to the owner's patter instead of trusting my gut," she says.

Next time, she'll look for staff members who are not only friendly and knowledgeable, but seem trustyworthy as well.

Another tip from experts: Don't rush to sign on the dotted line. Wait a few days. Take the contract home and ask yourself if everything the salespeople promised is spelled out in the contract.

If all else fails, run, don't walk, to the FTC: www.ftc.gov or toll-free at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357).

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