Your Gym's Dirty Little Secrets

PHOTO: Check out these secrets your gym wont tell you.
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It's easy for gyms to pack the house in January, when everyone is hopped up on resolutions. That's why it's possibly the worst time to score a deal.

But come July--well, that's another story. You have much more leverage because, as it turns out, only 6 percent of new memberships come in during the summer, says Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, an advocacy group.

This isn't the only secret some gyms are hiding, and what you don't know can hurt your wallet and your health. Whether you're shopping for better deals or a new club, use this insider intel to make smarter decisions.

They'll Fight to Keep You

For the same reason summer is a good time to join the gym, it's also the perfect time to milk an existing membership, says Greenberg. Most health-club sales teams are required to meet monthly quotas and keep cancellations down, so they'd rather offer you extras than risk losing your business.

Show them the cheaper rate of a competing club and see if they'll match it. Or find out what your gym is offering newbies and ask for the same perks--extra guest passes, an all-gym pass (so you can hit up other locations while traveling), a few personal training sessions, or even a free month.

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Monthly Contracts Can Be a Rip-off

They're fine for gym rats. But if you're more of a gym mouse--i.e., you hit the place less than twice a week--don't sign on the dotted line just yet.

Gym users with monthly memberships can end up paying 70 percent more than those on pay-per-visit plans (often in the form of a 10-visit pass), says Stefano DellaVigna, Ph.D., an associate professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, who studied gym users for three years. In fact, over six months, the average member would have saved more than $150 by paying a drop-in rate.

The Place Is Crawling with Germs

We suggest you Purell before reading further. All sanitized? Here goes: One study found that three-fourths of weight equipment was contaminated with cold-causing rhinoviruses, and even wiping surfaces down twice didn't completely nix germs.

The sniffles are the least of your worries: MRSA (!) and other types of staph infections can be contracted if a cut or scrape on your skin comes in contact with the bacteria. And your gym can have its fair share of the stuff, says Jack Foley, director of sports medicine at Lehigh University and coauthor of the National Athletics Trainers' Association report on skin infections. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses can survive in moist spots . . . like damp locker rooms and sweaty mats and public benches.

Tips To Avoiding Gym Germs

To lessen your exposure, put down a towel when using an exercise mat or bench (that goes for benches in locker rooms too) to limit direct skin contact with surfaces. (Also smart: Swap your tank and short shorts for a less-skin-baring T-shirt and capris or leggings.)

Bring your own yoga mat; most communal ones are only sporadically cleaned. After your workout, shower immediately, change into clean clothes, and keep your dirty gear in a separate compartment in your bag, says Jeff Hageman, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When you get home, let your shower flip-flops air out and dry before repacking them. And next time, you may want to rethink using gym-provided towels: Outbreaks of MRSA have been associated with shared towels. Ask if your gym launders them in hot water and hot dryers. If the staff can't say for certain, bring your own.

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More from Women's Health:

Why Gym Classes Work So Well

14 Shape-Up Shortcuts

Running for Beginners

The Best Workout for Your Body Type

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