Cambridge Boasts Luxurious Well-Equipped Health Clubs, But Buyers Should Beware: The MAC is Cheap and Near
Compared to some health clubs, Harva4rd's gym looks like a nineteenth century European zoo--the overcrowding, the iron bars, the stench. Harvard students know this as "the MAC," short for Malkin Athletic Center, the abyss where the masses are condemned to sweat and toil.
For those who seek a more elegant or better equipped workout environment, Bale's Holiday Fitness Center, Healthworks and Le Pli each offer their own distinctive options.
But when students consider joining an outside health club, the message is caveat emptor: ready to prey on the discontent of Harvard students, the health club industry casts its lures and students are sometimes blinded to the fine print by the glare of bright machinery.
Several Harvard students have been involved in legal disputes with Bally's Holiday Fitness Center in Porter Square. The students allege that Bally's salespeople misrepresented membership conditions.
Rachel Allen '91 joined Bally's with two of her former roommates. Allen had just graduated, and the roommates were seniors, so flexibility was important to them in a membership.
"The sales representative told us there was no commitment," Allen says, "but of course, there was. We specifically asked her if there was a commitment, and she said `no.'"
When Allen moved to Oakland, Calif., she attempted to terminate her membership, but she says the club told her she could not get out of the three-year contract.
After four months of writing letters to Bally's and eventually threatening legal action, Allen stopped receiving bills.
Sarah E. Igo '91 joined Bally's in the spring of her senior year. She told sales representative Cindy Cox that she might move to Oakland, Calif., so she needed the option of terminating her membership.
According to Igo, Cox told her that there was no Bally's club within 20 miles of Oakland, and that she would therefore be entitled to terminate the membership if she moved there.
But Igo says once she moved, Bally's officials changed their story. They told her there was a club 19 miles from her home, close enough for Igo to still be bound by the contract.
Mary Galvin, co-manager of the Bally's in Porter Square, says that Bally's has no affiliates near Oakland, so Igo would have been eligible to terminate the contract.
Galvin acknowledges that in the past "there were some bugs to be ironed out" in the way sales representatives presented membership options and fee structures.
Today, Galvin says, their sales staff is "more precise and accurate." Salespeople who misrepresent the club face dismissal, she said.
Galvin also asserts Bally's handles all cancellations responsibly, and that a printed list of all Bally's nationwide affiliates is available at the front desk and from staffers.
Bally's does boast a considerable Harvard clientele, drawn mostly from the Law School. The club offers 36 stair climbers (to the MAC's four), stationary bicycles, Nautilus and Kaiser equipment, free weights, a special weight room for women, a pool, a whirlpool, a sauna, a steam room and babysitting.
Bally's offers several membership types, and several options within each type. The somewhat Byzantine fee and benefits structure can be confusing, and the fine print is worth reading carefully.
Also in Porter Square is Healthworks, a down-to-earth, all-women's club which lacks the high-tech neon and chrome decor of Bally's but provides all the basics and a few nice amenities.
"I love it," says Anne C. Carman '94, captain of the Harvard-Radcliffe equestrian team.
Healthworks includes the leg and hip machines particularly used by women in their line of Nautilus and Kaiser equipment. They also have free weights, treadmills, ergs, stationary bicycles, and stair climbers and many kinds of aerobic classes. Although they lack a pool, they do have a sauna and a steam room.
"The people are very friendly and very professional," says Carman, who has talked five friends into joining the club. "They've motivated me to quit smoking."
The student membership, which costs $250 for six months, includes consultations with a nutritionist, physical evaluations and consultations with a personal trainer, but carries sizable restrictions on days and times when students may use the club.
The student membership cannot be canceled for any reason within any length of time unless the student is ill for longer than three months--half the duration of the membership.
The last--some would say the ultimate--health club alternative is Le Pli, in the Charles Hotel.
Contractually quite flexible, Le Pli carries its own sort of caveat: it is only for those who are lithe of thigh and stout of wallet. The most expensive health club in Cambridge, it has both the most beautiful facilities and clientele.
From the dolphin tile mosaic in the women's bathroom to the beige upholstered sitting area on the second of its three floors, Le Pli exudes understatement like the MAC exudes sweat.
In fact, everything at Le Pli (except for the price) is understated: The pool is smaller than Olympic size, the machines are few and the classes are all in one aerobics room. But the price is so prohibitively expensive that the club is never crowded and patrons say there is never a wait.
To cool off after heating up, one can enjoy a French manicure, seaweed wrap, or herbal reflexology, among other services.
Membership at Le Pli starts with a $400 initiation fee, and then costs an additional $115 per month for as long as the person chooses to be a member. Membership may be terminated or put on hold at any time for any reason.
The special student rate, available only to Harvard students, is exactly half the regular rate, but two students must join together. Each student pays a $200 initiation fee and $57.50 per month. There are no restrictions on days or times, but the students cannot use the club at the same time since they are sharing one membership.
Back to Reality
As downmarket as Le Pli is upmarket, Central Square's YMCA charges just a little more for a year membership than Le Pli charges for a month. At the YMCA, $150 dollars buys the use of two pools, two tracks, two gymnasiums, and a weight room six days a week, all year.
But for students who want to escape grunge, are afraid of Byzantine contracts, averse to trekking to Porter Square, or not financially privileged, there are few alternatives to the MAC.
While Harvard students agree it's no Le Pli, it is close by and co-ed. And while is not even close to one of the best things in life, it is free.