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Back In Shape -- On a Budget

Ready to shed the baby weight? Lifting a ten-pound newborn is great exercise, but you may want to hit the gym too. Do some investigating first to ensure that you only lose extra pounds, not extra dollars.

* Shop around. If there's more than one gym near your home or office, compare prices to see who offers the best deal. Key your city or zip code into healthclubs.com.

* Modify your membership. Many gyms are part of a chain of clubs around your state or the country; when you sign up at one, you belong to all of them. If you know for sure that you won't be visiting any of the other locations, you may be able to get a discounted membership that is limited to just one club.

Likewise, if you plan to go to the gym only during odd hours (e.g., the middle of the day or very late at night), ask about getting a membership that is limited to off-peak times.

* Get a deal through your company or insurer. Many insurers and corporations strike deals with area gyms in order to encourage their members and employees to exercise.

* Read the contract. Many gyms may offer a great deal up front but then sneak clauses into the contract that obligate you to pay more later. Pay extra attention to the cancellation policies. Ask if you'll receive a full or partial refund if you cancel within three days of joining, if a physical disability (including pregnancy) prohibits you from visiting the club for more than six months, or if you move 25 miles away from the nearest facility. Also look out for unwanted automatic-renewal clauses buried in the contract.

* Avoid "pre-opening" specials. Some gyms may offer specials to members who sign up before the gym has actually been built, but the Better Business Bureau advises against joining a club ahead of time. The club may never open or follow through on its promises if it does.

* Try a local school. Many colleges and universities provide nonstudent memberships to their athletic facilities that are often cheaper than commercial gyms.

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