Last updated: Mar 11, 2009
Choosing a gym can feel a bit like choosing a spouse: You want it all, you deserve it all. And once you sign on the dotted line, it had better be a rewarding, motivating, and healthy relationship!

So, consider us your health-club matchmakers. In a world where every gym promises to be your be-all and end-all, its hard to tell which major gym and health-club chains actually live up to the hype.

Weve assembled a panel of expert trainers, nutritionists, and practice mavens to find out which clubs offer you the most—from healthy, clean environments to the best, safest exercise equipment, from personal training to classes that will keep you motivated, plus food and drink to help you reach your goals. Read on for your perfect match.

1. Equinox Fitness Clubs
Let us count the ways this stellar club wowed our experts, notching 14 perfect 10s. Every detail counts here: rigorous cleanliness; impressive, extensive equipment (from kettlebells to nearly a dozen varieties of cardio machines); and impressively trained staff—all leading to safe, healthy (and fun) workouts.

“The range of specializations among the staff gives them a perfect 10,” says fitness expert Kim Lyons, who was also impressed by Equinoxs fantastic class offerings. “An excellent variety with a unique touch taught by knowledgeable trainers earns them a double thumbs-up!” she adds. Equinoxs mind-body classes (such as their new Buddha Camp, a boot-camp-style workout that incorporates elements of yoga, Tai Chi, and Pilates) earns a perfect score from judge Kristin McGee. “They really think outside the box,” she says.

We love: PowerNAP+, a midday movement class that culminates in a short snooze to “improve mood, enhance mental concentration, and reverse information overload.” Brilliant and progressive.

2. Life Time Fitness
Life Time grabbed top scores from panelists for its large, dynamic clubs that style themselves as “day resorts for the entire family.” “Innovative and first-class,” notes panelist Cedric Z. Bryant. “Crazy awesome,” Lyons says. “If you cant get fit and have fun doing it at Life Time, youre in trouble!”

Our experts were struck by the outstanding variety of exercise equipment and classes, plus its top-drawer staff and training. Nutritionist Christine Avanti gives special credit to its LifeCafe menu, which boasts all-natural items with a Mediterranean flair, like the Chicken Basil Pesto Sandwich (along with the usual smoothies and wraps).

“This club understands the importance of good nutrition,” she says. Green expert Jen Boulden gives Life Time her highest score for eco-friendly touches like the widespread use of natural light and progressive energy- and water-saving practices.

We love: Rock-climbing walls for a fun, adventurous, family workout.

3. Urban Active
This innovative club understands the importance of environments that make you want to be there. Their newest building in Columbus, Ohio, for example, is 75% glass, and every clubs indoor track boasts nearly complete panoramic views, surrounding members with sunlight.

Most cardio machines have flat-screen personal TVs (and iPod hookups), and youll find tons of cardio equipment in the in-club movie theaters. Lyons loves that many staff members are specially trained to work with people with injuries and disabilities, a segment of the population many gyms overlook. “I feel the passion behind this club,” she says.

We love: Thoughtful, thorough green practices that promote member health as well as planetary well-being. “They know their stuff,” Boulden says.

4. Crunch
“Great energy, refreshing color, hip vibe,” Lyons says. This popular urban gym takes full advantage of its big-city settings, making working out as entertaining as it is healthy. Crunchs cutting-edge classes, from Anti-Gravity Yoga to Pole Dancing, win our judges praise (and perfect scores).

“Crunch is often the first to try new exercise approaches,” Bryant notes. It also wins praise for its creative “field trips”—ski and surf trips, yoga in the park, even discounted cooking classes.

We love: The commitment to Pilates, with Reformer equipment for members.

5. Town Sports International (New York Sports Clubs, Boston Sports Clubs, Washington Sports Clubs, Philadelphia Sports Clubs)
Kudos to this club for taking meticulous care of its machines and upgrading regularly.

Bryant calls this approach “excellent” and lauds the unique organization of equipment that guides users through based on their level of experience. Lyons likes that TSI offers personal-training options to fit busy and on-a-budget folks.

“In our overworked and underpaid economy,” she says, “these are two important areas.” The designated mind-body studios found in many of the clubs gained praise from McGee: “It means they are serious about mind-body-based workouts.”

We love: Small Group Training, where a group of members with a common fitness goal (like skiing, Pilates, or boxing) can get customized training at an affordable price (as low as $189 per person for eight one-hour sessions).

6. 24 Hour Fitness
Fun, upbeat, accessible, with “a proven track record,” fitness expert Harley Pasternak notes. Thats 24 Hour Fitnesss prescription for a healthy, full-service club that appeals to members of all ages and budgets—all attributes that win widespread praise from panelists.

Bonus points from Lyons for offering a range of classes for seniors.

We love: “Signature Clubs” that reflect different celebrity athletes particular passions. (The Lance Armstrong Clubs, for instance, feature special cycling rooms.)

7. Golds Gym
Our panelists praised the variety of group-fitness classes, including cycling, cardio kickboxing, yoga, and Pilates, as well as dance-inspired cardio.

“Its great to see that Golds, which I used to think of as just a muscle-building-steel house, is offering a wide range of mind-body classes,” judge Kristin McGee says.

We love: Celebrity-trainer options at many of its big-city clubs, although youll feel it in your wallet (up to $200 an hour).

8. Lifestyle Family Fitness
Clean, well-staffed, good classes—check. What puts this gym in our top 10, though, are its creative approaches to health and lifestyle issues, including a computerized kiosk for monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, BMI, and weight, and programs that let members challenge each other to weight-loss competitions.

Bonus points for comping teens during the summer: “This helps them foster a positive relationship with physical activity,” panelist Cedric X. Bryant says.

We love: Their choreography-based dance classes are top-notch and fun, judge Kim Lyons says.

9. Curves
This popular women-only gym earns a spot for creating an easy, low-cost way for exercisers—particularly beginners—to get fit.

“The no-frills approach makes the gym more affordable. If that gets more people working out, great!” panelist Harley Pasternak says. In 2009, Curves is expanding its weight-management program with free on-site classes, earning a thumbs-up from Lyons.

We love: The Curves philosophy truly embraces women of all ages, sizes, and fitness levels, making it very accessible.


10. Lady of America
Bryant sees this womens gym as an expansion of the Curves model: It allows women to feel comfortable exercising in an all-female setting but in a larger format that includes group-fitness classes with certified personal trainers.

Also great: LOA offers equipment sized to fit womens proportions, a plus for safe and healthy exercise.

We love: On-site massages are available (not included in membership).

Pssst …
They didnt have enough locations to make our main list, but we cant resist giving a special shout-out to The Sports Club/LA.

Along with the latest in equipment and classes, they offer healthy restaurants, sound nutritional counseling, fantastic mind-body offerings, and thorough lifestyle and health evaluations. Some locations have boxing studios, racquetball courts, even junior Olympic pools. And did we mention the day spas?