A Long Wait in Line for the Bench Press

Gym membership ramps up in January, but some gyms say traffic picks up later.

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Gyms see just under 9 percent of new members added in March, experts say. When have you joined a gym?

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Good luck getting into that spinning class this month...or next month, or even in March. Gyms fill up in January, as optimistic souls resolve to get in shape, once and for all, for real this time. But while January does bring in more members than any other month for America's gyms, some clubs don't clear out until spring starts.

More than 12 percent of gym members join in January, compared to an average of 8.3 percent per month for the full year, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

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Still, it's not necessarily just a January bump; the entire first quarter of the year is a busy time for health clubs. February comes in second in terms of new clientele, with just over 9 percent of new members joining that month, and March comes in at just under 9 percent of members.

That can mean that the New Year's rush to the gym can last much longer than one month, with traffic getting even heavier in later months.

"It is a myth that January is the busiest month for gym usage; it's a close second behind March," says Mark Daly, national media director for Anytime Fitness, which owns 2,000 gyms, including more than 1,700 in the U.S. In his experience, March can have a slight edge on January. At Anytime Fitness clubs in 2012, there were just under 5.2 million visits in January, compared to just over 5.2 million in March. According to an IHRSA spokesperson, there is anecdotal evidence that other clubs are seeing their traffic spikes move into March, as well as April. However, different climates around the country make it hard to draw nationwide conclusions from the data.

For those clubs seeing more traffic later in the year, what accounts for the boost? It may be those January and February joiners sticking it out, combined with cooler weather forcing them to work out indoors. However, Daly has his own theory about the March bump in attendance at his company's gyms.

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"In that month, people are shedding clothing and getting ready for their spring and summer attire," he says.

Still, gym rats should prepare for full houses this month as well. Robert Giardina, CEO of Town Sports International, which operates sports clubs in Washington, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, says that January is the busiest month at his company's gyms, both in terms of membership and traffic. That means plenty of advance planning.

"We have 38 years of experience tracking what our members use and when we experience these spikes. Our programs and equipment, as well as staffing, have been planned months ahead," he says in an email.

Daly likewise says that Anytime Fitness advises its franchisees to plan well in advance of the January rush.

New Year's resolutions aside, longer-term trends point to more Americans packing into sports clubs. As of 2011, there were 51.4 million health club members in the U.S, up more than 10 million from 2005, according to IHRSA, and an increase of more than 1 million from 2010. That may reflect a public that is more health-conscious, but it also may mean that attitudes about gyms have changed.

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"Americans are increasingly seeing a gym membership not as a want but more as a need," says Dale Schmidt, industry analyst at market research firm IBISWorld. "It's something Americans are increasingly budgeting into their normal expenses, as opposed to a luxury purchase."

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