In this writer’s opinion, shopping for a place to train is a lot like shopping for fresh fruit: local is better. I should know, since I make it a point to buy locally-sourced, in-season fruit and belong to what could best be described as a “local” gym.

Missoula, Montana’s Access Fitness has all of the qualities of the ubiquitous big box gyms, while retaining a friendly, hometown vibe that gives it a personality few licensed mega-chain gyms can claim. I’ve been training in such mom and pop gyms for nearly 50 years now, and Access Fitness ranks right up there with the best of them.

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While the big box chains are squeezing many of the independent gyms out in much the same way coffee chains have made coffee shops all but obsolete, there are still a handful of locally-owned clubs scattered around the country. There’s probably even one near you. These local clubs survive expressly because they are local; they are operated by our friends and neighbors, who know our names and our training needs.  

In the case of Access Fitness, Kevin, Nate, Mick, and Cody are never too busy to spend time answering questions and giving instruction. As for members, there are guys like Louis, a nationally-recognized bodybuilder, who freely shares training tips with everyone who asks for his help, and Cole, a Native American, who is driven to grow in both body and spirit, and whose training regime is as tough as it is productive. Then there’s Kim, a professional athlete, fitness and nutrition coach, and (as few can believe upon meeting her) a grandmother, and Geoff, a gregarious Vietnam vet skilled at carrying on multiple conversations while completing a full workout.  These caring, driven, inspiring people represent only a fraction of the Access Fitness family, but they’re illustrative of the larger picture.

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As a long-time fitness buff, I’ve trained in many different environments over the years, including a garage outfitted with a cheap FM radio and an inadequate space heater. Yet, I’d gladly train there again over a big box gym, where there’s a premium on the brand of your workout gear, the quantity of latte flavors at the in-house café, and the number of exotic machines designed to replace what dumbbells can already do perfectly well. Okay, so maybe I’m starting to sound like a bit of a curmudgeon. Truth is, those modern chains aren’t all bad, but they’re not my style. For me, nothing beats the experience of walking into “your” gym, hearing, “Good morning, Joe,” and instantly feeling a sense of camaraderie from the staff and fellow members. That’s an amenity no big box gym—no matter how steep the membership price—can offer.

If you’re currently a member at one of those glitzy joints that probably has you paying more than you’re comfortable with, try finding an independently owned local gym when your membership is up. Or better yet, come out to Missoula, where fitness is part of a lifestyle that includes a daily dose of the snow-capped Northern Rockies and the simple, authentic hometown culture found in our both city and our local gym, Access Fitness.