News & Politics

Feel Good Look Good: Best and Worst DC, VA, and MD Health Clubs

Forget about looking for love at the gym. Now most health clubs are busy places, and people get annoyed by a five-minute wait for a treadmill.

When women joined the gym scene in the early 1980s, working out was often half fitness, half flirtation.

"You'd see a cute girl in the corner, not even working out, with five guys around her," says Evelyn Holder, a 43-year-old lightweight bodybuilding champion who worked for Holiday Spa before joining Spartan and then Olympus Gym. "Some women wore tights with thong leotards on the outside."

Today, you'll see short-and-T-shirt-clad members pacing behind the cross-trainers to see if anyone is past the 30-minute limit. Some carry notebooks to keep track of sets and reps; others time it so they're doing cardio during the Nightly News.

"There's less interest in 'Who can I talk to?' or 'Maybe I'll meet a cute guy' and more of a focus on what they need to do in an hour," says personal trainer Yaz Boyum, who sees clients at Definitions, a gym in Georgetown, and works out at Gold's Gym.

Not that nobody's looking–one trainer notes the "primpers" who put cologne on in the locker room–but we're more serious now. Working out isn't just for vanity. It's for health.

Walk into any gym and you'llfind the must-haves: up-to-date weight-training equipment–usually Life Fitness, Nautilus Nitro, Icarian, Hammer Strength, Cybex, or a combination–plenty of cardio machines, and lively aerobics classes. Many have childcare for as little as $1 an hour. Most have saunas and steam rooms. Some offer personal training in groups to make it cheaper.

So how do you choose a gym? What makes Results and Washington Sports Clubs worth $20 to $30 more a month than Gold's or Ballys? What do Sport & Health clubs have that the YMCA doesn't?

To find out, I worked out at locations of the larger chains–Bally, Results, Life Time Fitness, Sport & Health, Olympus Gym, YMCA, Fitness First, Gold's Gym, Washington Sports Club, and Sports Club/LA. Staffers didn't know I was writing a story. On our Web site, we invited people to write in and tell us what they like and dislike about their gyms.

Here's what the advertisements don't tell you.

Bally Total Fitness: Out of Shape

When I joined Bally Total Fitness in 1999, I had one membership option: a three-year contract.

Regrettably, I signed it.

Since then, I've worked out at six Ballys–Rockville, Tysons (it's gone now), Gaithersburg, Downtown DC, Pentagon Square, and Wheaton. From cleanliness to customer service, Ballys doesn't stack up.

Machines are sometimes sweaty–some Ballys don't provide paper towels for members to wipe down machines–and the bathrooms rarely smell fresh.

Even worse: the personal trainer who told me that I probably wouldn't meet my goals unless I bought Bally's nutritional supplements.

"Ballys is all about sales and marketing," says one member.

They now offer month-to-month contracts, but there's still an attitude: Staffers are sometimes preoccupied with personal phone conversations. Others are watching sports on television.

A 26-year-old male Rockville member wrote us to say, "Nine times out of ten I'm 'greeted' by a sullen individual who seems bothered to take five seconds to scanmy card."

At about $40 a month (one of the cheaper memberships), Ballys doesn't provide the clean, feel-good atmosphere you get at Fitness First, where you pay less. But they offer a money-back guarantee: If you're not happy after 30 days, you can get a full refund.

The catch? You have to visit the gym 12 times in those 30 days.

Bright spots: At the L Street gym in DC, staffers smile and say "hello." They've walked by while I was doing cardio and said "Keep it up."

The DC and Wheaton gyms are in dark basements, so the floor-to-ceiling windows at Pentagon Square are refreshing. It's the only Ballys with a juice bar.

Sizing up the crowds: You'll see teens, young professionals, bodybuilders, and seniors. Members like the mix but not the crowds. There's often a wait for cardio in the evening–and no sign-up sheets.

A few members call Ballys a meat market. "Men are always leering at or hitting on the women," says Rockville member Francesca Ugolini. "You have to walk around and try not to make eye contact." She says aerobics classes in Rockville are held "in a big open space in the middle of the gym, with all the gawkers watching."

Cutting costs: The good thing about a three-year contract: a big drop in dues once it expires. A $50 to $60 a month Premier Personal Training Membership (it includes two training sessions) has a $12 month-to-month renewal rate. Hard to beat, if you get through the three years.

Bally Total Fitness: 11 locations in Maryland, five in Virginia, one in DC;

Fitness First: Best Deal

Turquoise carpets. Turquoise seats on the weight machines. Turquoise lightning bolts painted on the walls.

The color scheme at Fitness First fits the mood: It's a happy gym. Staffers smile at you. In Bethesda, they'll feed your parking meter. Monet and van Gogh prints hang in some locker rooms. In Alexandria, the manager will change the television station if you ask, but not before he checks with each member nearby.

Even though it has 50,000 members, Fitness First isn't well known–but it's the best deal around, at $31 to $38 a month. Contracts are for one year; after that, memberships are month-to-month.

Best perk: Personal training is free. Members get an average of three sessions the first month and one to two a month from then on, although trainers will work with you until you're "self-sufficient." Employees don't profit from personal training, so you don't get hassled the way you might at other gyms.

Wait's over: I visited four Fitness Firsts–Bethesda, Tysons Corner, Alexandria, and downtown DC–and never waited for equipment. But on one evening visit to Bethesda, I did need ten minutes to park. On Wisconsin Avenue, the gym lacks its own lot. It's three blocks from the Bethesda Metro.

Who's there: Clientele ranges from a slew of twentysomethings in the evenings in Bethesda to moms, seniors, and military and government workers in Alexandria, where 70 percent of the members are women.

Class acts: Although cardio equipment is usually available, aerobics classes–they range from Boot Camp, a "no-nonsense military-style workout," to Salsa Aerobics–are popular. One member calls Bethesda's Monday-night kickboxing class "unbearably crowded." Six-week dance classes ($45) include West Coast Swing, DC Hand Dancing, and Beginner Jazz.

Hitting the showers: The locker rooms aren't spotless during peak hours, but the soft towels at the DC branch–only the DC, Leesburg, Tysons, Reston, and Frederick locations offer towels–beat the scratchy towels at other gyms.

Bottom line: Pamphlets at the front desk in Tysons ask, "If I were the owner of Fitness First I would. . . ." My answer? Play livelier music and turn up the volume. In Bethesda, I could barely hear a Cher song over the treadmills. One member there told the front-desk staffers, "Music is half of a workout. This music puts meto sleep."

For the price, I'd bring a Walkman.

Fitness First: Nine locations in Maryland, four in Virginia, one in DC;

Gold's Gym: Not What You Think

Maybe it's that barbell-bending muscle-man logo that makes it hard for Gold's to escape its reputation.

It's not just a place for bodybuilders. In my visits to Gold's in downtown DC, Van Ness, Silver Spring, Ballston, and Vienna, I saw mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, and a few seniors, in shorts and oversize T-shirts. Gold's has its share of buff weightlifters, but they don't take over the gym. I never felt intimidated.

Memberships range from $29.95 to $49.95 a month (depending on how much you put down), and that's about what Gold's is worth. It's average: Some employees chat with you; others are busy chatting with one another. Katherine Gluchowski, who works out in Rosslyn and Ballston, wrote to tell us, "I have yet to meet someone who would go out of their way to help you."

And the women's locker room in Van Ness was dirty during three out of four peak-hour visits.

New and different: The 1H-year-old downtown Silver Spring location–it's one of 21 locally franchised Gold's–was one of the most inviting gyms I visited. Staffers float around to help. There are windows near the spacious cardio area. The wood-paneled Spinning-room doors, pale-red columns and window trim, and circular front desk give it a contemporary feel. There's an 11-player CD station where members can put their CD in and listen to it from any of 70 pieces of cardio.

One caveat: You need an "all-club" membership ($59 a month) if you want access to both corporate–there are 14 in the DC area–and franchised gyms.

Top of its class: Ballston recently won an award for class participation–among more than 30 corporate Gold's nationwide, its members take the most classes. Ballston offers more than 100 classes a week. The most popular is Body Pump, a nonaerobic strength-training class.

Hill deal: Gold's is the official gym of the US House of Representatives, so staffers can get a multigym membership for $15.95 a month. There's a Gold's on Capitol Hill.

Too close for comfort? Readers complain that the Ballston, Alexandria, and Rosslyn branches are overcrowded. The Gold's in Clarendon closed in April, so members had to find a replacement. "You might get more people than there are square feet available," says one Ballston gymgoer. They've recently added more than 30 pieces of cardio and more parking at Ballston.

Ladies only: The carpeted Lady Gold's room in Ballston is filled with weight equipment designed for women. There's also a television and cardio machines. A staffer says it doesn't fill up because most women use the large weight room. There's also a Lady Gold's in Silver Spring.

Gold's Gym: 35 locations in the Washington area;

Life Time Fitness: Best Hours

"This place is huge!" says a woman walking through the wide hallways of Life Time Fitness in Centreville. The parking lot is packed on a Saturday afternoon, but the gym doesn't feel crowded. With more than 400 pieces of equipment, two basketball courts, two indoor pools, a cafe, a salon/spa, and three locker rooms, there's enough to go around.

And plenty of time to use it. Life Time, which has another location in Fairfax, is open 24 hours a day. You can swim from 5 AM to midnight on weekdays, 6 to midnight on weekends.

In Centreville, when it's light outside, it's bright inside: The front-desk area has high glass ceilings, and large windows keep the gym floor well lit.

Once you get past the $300 to $349 initiation fee, the rates are reasonable. There are two options: The Fitness membership is $49.95 a month; $59.95 buys the Sports plan, which gives you access to Centreville's racquetball and squash courts and rock-climbing wall.

Adult swim: Both locations have kiddie pools with water slides, so adults don't have to worry about younger members taking over the lap lanes. Centreville has two inviting saunas–one is kept at 100 degrees; the other is a little hotter.

Dressing rooms: Life Time is the only chain I visited that has separate unisex family locker rooms, in addition to regular ones, where moms and dads can bring their kids to get ready. Each shower has its own private changing area.

No rush: Centreville has about 160 pieces of cardio equipment; Fairfax has 150. Neither uses sign-up sheets, and there's no time limit on cardio. In Centreville, there are 10 to 15 weight machines for each muscle group.

Play time: The childcare center has a computer lab, a play maze, and a basketball court. It's free for two hours, but parents need to make an appointment for infants, who stay in a separate area.

Life Time Fitness, 5900 Trinity Pkwy., Centreville, 703-266-6200; Fair City Mall, 9602 Main St., Fairfax, 703-323-8700;

Olympus Gym: Most Muscle

"This is a gym, not a club," says staffer Andy Cazalas. "You walk in and you're working out. You're not wearing makeup."

Housed in what feels like a warehouse, the Olympus in Burke doesn't pretend to be something it's not. There's one shower, one sink, and stained carpet in the women's locker room. Cardio equipment is lined up in tight rows; some new treadmills were boxed up for months because there was no place to put them.

The emphasis here is on resistance training. There are about 120 pieces of equipment, including a newer line of Nautilus and four to seven machines for each muscle group. "They stay on top of things," says Evelyn Holder, who's worked out in Burke for seven years. There are about 200 weight machines in Falls Church–including three rows of circuit training–and 70 pieces of cardio.

For $25 to $49 a month, you probably won't wait in line at an Olympus Gym. Which is good, because you probably won't want to linger.

No excuses: The Falls Church Olympus is open from 4 AM to midnight on weekdays, 5 AM to midnight on weekends. Most other chains close at 6 or 8 on Sundays. Many predawn and late-night gymgoers are military personnel, police officers, firefighters, and nurses.

Better than the rest: The Chantilly branch had a facelift in November. The 40,000-square-foot club has saunas, full-court basketball, 14 televisions near the new cardio equipment, towel service, and a cafe with smoothies, coffee, and snacks. The Kids Club has a computer center, its own basketball court, and an enclosed area for infants. Members can drop the kids off for Friday Date Nights–it's $10 a child for members; $15 for nonmembers–when children spend 3H hours doing relays, exercises, playing court games, and watching a movie. The monthly gym fee is $49 and includes access to area Olympus Gyms.

Bring your own: Everything. Most locations don't provide shampoo, conditioner, or towels. The liquid all-purpose soap in the Falls Church showers is kept in unmarked water bottles. In Silver Spring, the soap dishes in the showers were empty.

Cleaning up: Olympus doesn't set high standards for cleanliness–there are big stains in the dull gray carpet in Falls Church–but members there are serious about wipe-downs. During an evening rush, almost everyone had a towel or used the paper towels and cleanser near the cardio equipment.

Watch your step: The Olympus in Silver Spring makes Burke look like a gem. The only television is at the front desk, for employees. Seat coverings on some weight machines are torn. A creaky spiral staircase leads to an upstairs cardio and aerobics room, where there are 15 machines, dirty rugs, and speaker wires lying around.

Pump up the volume: Six televisions are mounted in the spacious Falls Church free-weight room, all tuned to the Olympus music-video channel, which plays Top 40 to hip-hop. There are eight more near cardio that show sports, news, and music videos.

Not included: It's $5 for a yoga class in Falls Church.

Olympus Gym: Seven locations in Virginia, five in Maryland;

Results, the Gym: Best Style

You know you're in a ritzy gym when a woman in the locker room, wearing only a towel, is standing barefoot on African-slate tile using the courtesy phone to order a salad from the cafe upstairs.

One of two Results, the Capitol Hill branch is housed in a converted schoolhouse. At 65,000 square feet, there's room for black leather couches, Foosball, half-court basketball (openfor pickup games), squash, a climbing wall, and five aerobics studios. Some of its 4,500 members are Hill staffers; others are elderly neighbors just starting to work out.

Staffers roam the gym to help. Local artwork hangs on the walls. The 75 cardio machines–about 20 have individual six-by-eight-inch televisions–are spread out among three levels, including the "Running Room" with 15 new treadmills. Results subscribes to nine magazines–including Vanity Fair, GQ, and Newsweek–while other gyms fill the racks with whatever members leave behind.

The Dupont Circle Results, about half the size, is almost as impressive. Exposed brick, wide ceiling pipes, and tangerine cement columns give it a hip, industrial feel. One member likes the "loads and loads of light, unlike the many basement gyms in the area." Dance music plays at night; a disco ball lights up some Spinning classes.

More than 65 percent of the members at Dupont are men–and it's hard to find one who isn't in shape. "I was pretty intimidated at first," says a 40-year-old male gymgoer. There's an upstairs Ladies Training Center for females who want privacy. The quiet "Ab Theater" has abdominal balls and workout videos.

It's $84 a month at Capitol Hill (members can use both Results); $73 to belong only at Dupont Circle. You can bring a new guest every day, the same person once a month. Results plans to open a third DC gym in the next year.

Shower in style: In the Capitol Hill locker room, it's easy to forget you're at a gym. Towels are stored in armoires. The light-orange walls are bright and energizing. There's an inviting whirlpool.

Baby zoom: The Capitol Hill location has a third-floor "baby monitor," a 27-inch television that's wired to the daycare room downstairs.

It's my turn! Members sign up for cardio equipment during peak hours. It works, but it's stressful: If you go a minute past your time, you might get stared down.

Crunched for time? The Capitol Hill Results has a studio just for abs, with four hours of classes daily during the week. Both locations have 20-minute "Abs Express" classes.

Making a night of it: The Health Bar next to the Dupont branch–it's owned by Capitol City Brewing Company–attracts a lively crowd during happy hour from 9 to 11. Freshly showered gym rats sip frozen apple martinis, while others dine on low-fat, low-sodium, dairy-free feasts.

Results, the Gym, 1612 U St., NW, 202-518-0001; Third and G sts., SE, 202-234-5678;

Sport & Health: Best Extras

Sport & Health calls itself a "family of athletic clubs," but aside from friendly staffers, jazzy locker rooms, and ActivTrax, a customized fitness program, some of the clubs don't look like they're related.

Take the Regency Sport & Health in McLean: Three older men dine in the cafe after tennis in the bubble. For $25, parents can drop the kids off once a month for four hours of "Friday Night Out." There's full-court basketball, racquetball, volleyball, squash, and table tennis. It's $104.95 a month for a fitness membership, $149.95 for fitness and tennis (court fees extra).

Then there's the Rockville branch, where a morning visit revealed dirty towels in the hallway near the racquetball courts and only older-model treadmills. Then again, it's $49 a month. At the Washington Hilton, members pay $75.95 a month–there's a heated outdoor pool–and share one small room for cardio and lifting.

So if you're planning to use a Sport & Health near work and one near home, it's worth visiting both.

The "Athletic/Multi-Club" membership ($69.95 a month) gives you access to the 19 smaller clubs; with the "Metropolitan & Tennis" ($155.95 a month), you can also use the seven larger clubs–Regency, Tenley, Bethesda, Herndon, Tysons, Watergate, and Old Town.

You've got mail: Some clubs have NetPulse Internet-connected equipment on Life Fitness recumbent bikes. The technology, unique to Sport & Health, makes cycling a popular cardio choice. Users can surf the Web or check e-mail, a good distraction if you tend to count the minutes.

Morning pick-me-up: Most clubs offer free coffee and tea.

Staying on Trax: For $25 a month, a "coach" (they're personal trainers, but unlike in other programs, there's no face-to-face interaction) will design and oversee a customized plan that includes warm-up, resistance, abs, and cardio. You write down what you've done and file your card, and a coach looks it over that evening, changing the weight and reps as needed. When you slack off, they know. One Ballston member's card read, "You have not completed a workout in over 3 weeks. Your weight has been reduced to make your comeback a bit more comfortable."

Who's there: "This is a fortysomething gym," says a Bethesda member when I ask if the soft rock I'm hearing is the norm. "The younger people have earphones on." On a second visit, there's no music at all.

Maybe it's the older clientele at Tenley Sport & Health–a staffer says the club attracts "high-profile professionals" like "senators and anchorpeople"–but you usually can't hear the music in either of the two cardio areas. Unless you're in an aerobics class–Latino Africano Caribbeano is popular at Tenley–it's quieter at Sport & Health, which members seem to like.

Weekends off: All clubs offer restrictive plans. At the Regency, you can work out Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for $59.95 a month; it's $75.95 for a Monday-through-Friday membership.

Double fault? Members complain about poor lighting and roof leaks at the Regency tennis facilities. Some say it's hard to get court time. "Only a few get through on the dial-in reservation system," wrote Leslie McMullen, who joined in 1991. "Like calling into a radio station to win a prize."

Finishing touches: Most locker rooms have cotton swabs, hair spray, deodorant, moisturizer, ironing boards, and hangers; some have mouthwash and combs. If you rent a locker–it's $11 to $35 a month–you get an engraved nameplate.

Sport & Health: Six locations in Maryland, 19 in Virginia, and 4 in DC;

Sports Club/LA: Best People Watching

I worried about what to wear to the Sports Club/LA. I'd heard that Michael Jordan used to work out there and that visiting Hollywood celebs often stop by. I pictured the women in stylish sports bras and matching athletic capris–hair down, earrings in.

Turns out I fit right in with leggings and a loose purple tank top.

Not that the 100,000-square-foot club isn't special. Walk off the elevator on the Ritz-Carlton's first floor and you'll get a whiff of scented candles from the gift shop. There are palm trees in the marble-tiled club lobby, which also has a dry cleaner, a boutique, a cafe, and a bar. Downstairs is a day spa and Roche salon.

The friendly women's locker room attendant will ask if you want a top- or bottom-locker key. There's a filtered water station for filling bottles. Nearly all of the cardio machines have six-by-eight-inch Broadcast Vision televisions. Upstairs, there's a four-lane Olympic-size swimming pool.

You pay for the perks. A standard membership is $135 a month, with a $600 initiation fee (they'll cut that in half if you leave another club to join); it's $155 if you want to use the four squash courts. For multiclub privileges–other locations include New York, Boston, and San Francisco–the monthly rate is $188 to $230, with initiation fees around $1,200.

Something for everyone: With more than 40 classes on the aerobics schedule, you'll find unique choices: Face-Val-U helps keep your facial muscles toned; Candle Light Stretch is a wellness class choreographed to "soothing music while basking in the glow of candlelight."

And they bring in guests: In June, touring Chicago cast members taught "All That Jazz," a free one-time dance session.

Winding down: At 8 PM on a Thursday, about half the tables in the Sidewalk Café are filled with friends chatting over tacos, salads, or $5.75 smoothies. CNN is showing on the flat-screen television, and there's a guy playing guitar near the bar.

Hoop teams: Most of the 100 cardio machines overlook the club's two basketball courts, where traveling NBA players have been known to practice. There are lunchtime games three days a week and a daily pickup play–12 minutes or up to 25 points; there's a court monitor.

Familiar faces: You might see J.C. Hayward, Barbara Harrison, Mia Hamm, Michael Wilbon, Ted Leonsis, Patrick Ewing, or Raul Fernandez. Larry King, a bicoastal member, and Chris Rock stop by when they're in town. The Bush twins had a one-month summer membership two years ago. Ozzy Osbourne was spotted in the sauna. Britney Spears, George Clooney, and Steven Spielberg used the club last year.

Special instruction: Exercise teachers offer "one-on-ones" (it's just you two) and "duets" (you bring a friend) in any type of aerobics–even Belly Dancing and Muscle Ballet. It's $175 for five one-hour sessions if you sign up when you join.

Sports Club/LA, 22nd and M sts., NW; 202-974-6600;

Washington Sports Clubs:Best Distraction

At the Washington Sports Club in Clarendon during a Monday-evening rush, almost everyone doing cardio is wearing earphones. Nobody is chatting or reading. Some of the twentysomethings have on Friends; others are watching hockey or listening to CDs. I'm tuned into Access Hollywood, flipping through 19 cable channels during commercials. The time flies.

Almost half of the cardio equipment at Washington Sports Clubs has a six- or ten-inch television and a CD player; some locations have this on every machine. "I'll watch a Behind the Music on VH-1 and get so wrapped up that I run for longer than I planned to," says an M Street member.

It's a unique perk for a pricey chain–though it's still cheaper than Sports Club/LA, where there are also individual televisions. At Washington Sports Clubs, month-to-month memberships range from $76 to $80.

There's nothing glamourous about Washington Sports Clubs–none has pools, cafes, or racquet sports like their sister clubs in New York. But they're clean, bright, and friendly.

I visited six–West Springfield, North Bethesda, Clarendon, M Street, Dupont Circle, and Chevy Chase–and always found cheery staffers, plenty of equipment, unintimidating crowds, and spacious locker rooms.

All business: The downtown DC clubs–there are three within a few blocks of the Dupont Metro–attract a business clientele. During lunch at the M Street location, you might find a dozen women putting suits back on after a quick workout and shower.

Extra help: All 15 locations offer XpressLine, a supervised total-body circuit workout, for free. Trainers monitor you on eight machines and keep track of your settings. It's supposed to take 22 minutes, but that depends on the backup: Sometimes there aren't enough trainers nearby, so you have to find one if you want help.

Higher learning: Eight-week "Group Exclusives" are a step up from the free aerobics classes. For $135 to $229, members can take Pilates Reformer, Kickboxing, Boxing, Cycling, and more, taught by specialty instructors. Nonmembers can sign up but pay about $50 more.

Washington Sports Clubs: Three locations in Maryland, five in Virginia, seven in DC;

YMCA: Best Variety

Working out at a Y in the suburbs might not be peaceful, but the not-so-serious vibe is refreshing: On a Saturday morning in Silver Spring, toddlers peek into the cardio room. Children practice ballet and karate; others lounge on a hallway couch doing homework.

If the kids don't make you smile, the staff might. Call a YMCA and you'll probably get this greeting: "How can I brighten your day?" If you look confused, which you might at the seven-level National Capital Y in Northwest DC, employees notice and help. If you're not using a machine the right way, they'll correct you.

While the fitness facilities aren't consistent–some Y's don't have televisions near the cardio; some have older equipment–the Y stands out for its variety. Most have pools and pickup basketball; some have tennis, racquetball, a running track, or a climbing wall. From "Tumbling Tots" to "Master's Weight Training," there's a class for anyone. It'd be hard to get bored.

Lap lanes: Six of the larger Y's have indoor pools; Arlington has a heated outdoor pool. Bethesda and Silver Spring have both. The National Capital Y offers a ten-week scuba course ($270) in its 25-meter indoor pool. Aquatic fitness classes–most are extra–include "Kickboxing Water Aerobics" and "Water 101," one-on-one training with water resistance.

What you'll pay: It depends on your age and location. In Alexandria, an adult age 30 to 64 pays $67 a month; a "young professional" age 23 to 29 pays $54. Teens and seniors pay less. It's $83 a month for a family of two adults, with or without children. Some aerobics and swim classes are extra.

A Washington-area membership, $110 to $130 a month, gives you access to the seven full-facility Y's–there are 15 others that don't offer as many services–including the National Capital. Full memberships are month-to-month; a program membership ($40 to $70 a year) gives you access only to classes–not the fitness rooms, courts, or pools.

Computer training: Most Y's offer FitLinxx, a computerized exercise-management system, free with a full membership. A FitLinxx trainer programs your workout into a computer. Instructions for your seat setting, weight, and reps pop up on a small screen that's attached to each machine.

Membership has its privileges: At the National Capital, there are two locker rooms for men, two for women. But two of these are "athletic centers." Members pay an extra $18 to $50 a month (it depends on your category) for access to these spacious men or women's locker rooms with couches, a television, newspapers and coffee, sauna, steam room, massage chairs, cardio machines, and laundry service. There's a basket of soap bars, a better option than the foul-smelling liquid soap in the women's Athletic Center showers.

YMCA: Three locations in Maryland, three in Virginia, one in DC;