/ Health

Is your gym membership contract making you sweat?

Gym goer with weights

Ever felt locked into a gym membership? Not because of your intense desire to get fit, but by the terms of your contract. A new ruling suggests you may be able to cancel it without straining your bank balance.

I’ve discussed gyms on Which? Conversation a couple of times now, whether it’s simply the high cost of joining one, or the millions of us paying for a membership we don’t use.

And I’m sure one of the big reasons why so many of us (myself included) hold onto our gym membership is because we feel locked into a contract, where cancelling will often incur a significant charge.

Well, the High Court has now ruled that contracts drawn up by one company, which runs membership schemes for over 1,000 gyms across Britain, were unfair and unenforceable.

OFT flexes its muscles

In 2010, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) brought court action against Ashbourne Management Services, which creates contracts and collects payments from more than 500,000 gym-goers.

Ashbourne’s contracts had minimum memberships of between one and three years. If you stopped working out at your gym and wanted to discontinue payments, Ashbourne would request immediate payment of the full membership sum. Plus, if you refused to pay this the company reportedly upped the pressure by threatening to damage your credit rating.

The hearing is now closed, with Mr Justice Kitchin ruling that Ashbourne’s practices were ‘designed and calculated to take advantage of the naivety and inexperience of the average consumer using gym clubs at the lower end of the market’.

The judge added that minimum periods of over a year are ‘a trap into which the average consumer is likely to fall’, and that it was unfair to demand payment even if they had a genuine dispute about the quality of the gym. OFT director Jason Freeman commented on the ruling:

‘Unfair terms that unreasonably bind consumers into long contracts they cannot leave, and heavy-handed collection techniques, have no place in businesses’ dealings with consumers.’

Exercise your right to cancel

Although Ashbourne’s managing director John Clayton-Wright was keen to point out that the contracts under examination were out of date, could this ruling be a sign that gym contracts might change?

Convo commenter Chris thinks you should avoid being tied into gym contracts altogether:

‘Go to [a gym] run by a local council – reasonable rates and no tie ins or weird exit fees. You know it makes sense.’

This is the advice I now take – I pay for my membership on a monthly basis, meaning I’m not locked into a long contract and can leave whenever I’m feeling lazy. But not everyone’s this lucky – Fi Harasyn (@ififh) told us on Twitter that it’s ‘increasingly hard to find gyms that won’t lock you into a 12 month contract.’

So, should it be easier to cancel a gym membership before your contract is up? Or if a gym-goer is hit by a hefty cancellation fee, do they only have themselves to blame for signing on the dotted line?

P.S. If you want advice on cancelling your gym contract, make sure to check out our guide.

The Gym Group says:
3 June 2011

Offering contract free gyms gives power to the people. Consumers and customers should have the choice over the services they want to use and ultimately, when they want to stop using them. This is why at The Gym Group we operate a no contract Gym service offering.

Fi says:
3 June 2011

For many people council run gyms aren’t an option: services too poor, inadequate or the opening hours don’t suit. Or like me, you may need to make use of a creche. However, why should a consumer have to sign up for 12 months before even knowing what sort of service they will receive? I refuse to sign up to such a contract, but it does limit the choice available.

Council gyms are not necesarily free of tie-ins where mahagement is outsourced.

I once belonged to such a gym where you could not cancel. If you stopped paying the fees you were charged a penalty and the management company could terminate the contract (at its discretion) after three months.

Furthermore the contract purported to exclude any compensation for death or injury. But if the company did kill you, your personal representatives had to go on paying the monthly fees! I made a fuss and got it changed.

Tabooze says:
3 October 2011

How about this: wife has a two year membership at an upmarket SW London gym. I don’t want to exercise, so am not interested in a membership. Two kids go for swimming lessons (paid for separately). I take one of the kids to the gym the other day for one of these paid lessons, and get asked “is this going to be a regular thing, you accompanying the children? If yes, you should get yourself a membership”. I need to pay them a monthly fee so that I can once in a while have the pleasure of accompanying my offspring to their paid swimming lessons, walk on their polished wooden floor, and sweat while sitting in the heated swimming pool area!

Now, to make matters worse, my wife has an “off-peak” membership, and the new policy explicitly prohibits you from accompanying your children to their (paid for) if their lessons happen to be in these “peak” times. I recall them (in the sales stage) telling my wife that her off peak membership only meant that she couldn’t use the gym equipment at peak times, but could visit the gym socially.

These people are bloodthirsty leeches.

Shaun says:
6 April 2012

I tried a local gym Muscle Mechanics Warmly in December 2011. I paid them £40 cash to try their gym for the month and agreed that if I wished to join at the end of the month I would give them my bank details, they agreed to this and I gave them my personal details at no time was I told that I was signing a contract and I was not made aware of any T&C’s. I used the gym on one occasion injured myself which meant i couldnt drive for two weeks and i never returned to the gym again Earlier this month I was contacted by Ashbourne Management about arrears on my contract. I explained that I have never entered into a contract but have since been sent overdue statements which now have Additional charges they have also sent text messages to the same effect even at 12 o’clock at night. I have been back to muscle mechanics to discuss this but they say that I have entered into a years contract. They were aggressive in their attitude and said I had no way of getting out of it. It’s funny that on my first visit the member of staff I saw said on 4-5 occasions “we are not like Fitness First who just employ people to tie you into a contract”

Sue Wilson says:
14 January 2013

I have been a gym member for over a year and wish to leave as the price increase is too high, how much notice should I give and could they hold me to the whole year?

Hi Sue, we couldn’t say for certain as this can vary dramatically from gym to gym. Do you have a copy of your contract you can check? Or has your gym told you what your rights are to cancel your membership with them?