Pumping and Preening at the Gold’s Gym

The Thinker by Rodin

For the most part we customers of the Gold’s Gym believe in denying our mortality. We believe that with enough regular exercise and the proper diet we can become immortal. Death becomes something that only happens to flawed people — you know those wimps that don’t visit the gym regularly for real tough workouts. The corporate slogan for Gold’s Gym is “Serious Fitness”. That’s us. We don’t make excuses. We make the time to stay fit.

Well, perhaps this is not entirely true in my case. For me, finding time for exercise is a constant battle and a set of tradeoffs to be weighed. On a good week I am at the gym four times. On a bad week, such as when I am dealing with my aging parents, I make it there twice. And I am not sure I would be a customer of the Gold’s Gym at the Clocktower in Herndon, Virginia at all had not a whole lot of other options closed on me. For much of this year and last my primary form of exercise has been biking. Before that I ran regularly. Twenty years of running took its toll. After a run my knees regularly hurt and my ankles were often swollen. Biking was fun and liberating and a great substitute for running. But I never gave a thought to buying bike cleats or wearing biking shoes. I am sure all that high speed, long duration biking contributed to my foot problems. In recent months they have become so severe that often even wearing sandals hurt. It is only now, for reasons I don’t understand, that my feet are starting to feel normal again. With biking and running momentarily out there aren’t a lot of exercise options.

So patronizing a local gym started to look better and better. In my last job I had access to a health club in the hotel across the street. It cost me less than $30 a month. At the time it was a godsend, particularly since my boss had no problem with my taking extended lunch hours if necessary to accommodate my fitness needs. My current employer does not have a health club. It does however provide a subsidy for a health club, 50% or $200 a year, whichever is smaller. With the subsidy my effective cost for a gym dropped to under $20 a month. So I enrolled and hoped I could make up there for the exercise I could no longer get through running and biking.

In the prosperous part of Fairfax County, Virginia where I live there are a lot of health club options. Every gym seems to have its niche market. I settled on the Gold’s Gym for a number of pragmatic reasons. First, it was reasonably close to work and home: about two miles. Second, it is huge. Reputedly this gym is the biggest Gold’s Gym on the East Coast. Lastly I like the idea of “serious fitness”. Although I can’t quite see myself bulking up on protein shakes I wasn’t interested in a health club where the majority of the patrons wore spandex. I wanted a place where I could get a good aerobic workout and where I could find plenty of weight machines. Neither are problems at this Gold’s Gym. I have been in the gym at the height of their rush hour (early evenings) and I have yet to see all the elliptical machines in use. They must have thirty or forty elliptical machines alone. Elliptical machines are what my middle age body needs: a good way to bring up the heart rate but kind on the joints.

There is a lot to like about this Gold’s Gym. For a gym that many of us picture as a place where the local muscle guys meet to bench press hundreds of pounds at a time, this particular gym is an immaculately clean and well maintained establishment that attracts plenty of women too. About a third of its patrons are female. It may be that my sense of smell is declining but I have to work to smell any body odor in the place. When you are done with a machine you are expected to clean it off. (They provide rags and a disinfectant you can use.) But even if you don’t bother someone from the cleaning staff will be around shortly to do it anyhow. Someone is always vacuuming, polishing, oiling, wiping machines and sanitizing the place. The men’s locker room never has even a whiff of sweat. The shower stalls never show any mold. So far at least all the restroom stalls have been impeccably clean.

At pretty much any time of day you can find trainers on the floor. They are pretty easy to identify, if not from their muscles, but from the word “trainer” on the back of their shirts. Often they are not busy so you can ask them questions. A standard membership comes with three personal training sessions a year. I already used my first one.

But unquestionably I am one of their older patrons. Mostly they seem to be twenty or thirty somethings. As a rule we patrons don’t talk much to each other. This is not a place you come to in order to socialize. You do your thing, usually with a headset on, and then you leave. However the gym is clearly designed to make sure you and your fellow patrons are easy to check out. It is on two levels. The upper level is more like an atrium. Around the atrium are most of the cardiovascular exercise machines. Suspended from the atriums are lots of very large televisions broadcasting a few major cable channels (including, of course, ESPN). Unless you tune your portable radio to the right frequency you have to depend on the close captioning. I find that I mostly ignore the TV. It’s all commercial TV anyhow. So it is better to stay plugged and listen to your MP3 player or just listen to local radio.

But while my heart rate cruises between 130 and 150 beats per minute on the elliptical machines it is still hard to tune out the humanity around me. No question about it: for the most part the people at this Gold’s Gym look good. Presumably most of them are also single or at least childless. I find it hard to see so many tight looking twenty something women and not let my mind wander into soft-core erotic fantasies. But I don’t suffer the illusion that anything would ever become of them. After all unless you bring a friend with you, you just don’t talk to fellow patrons beyond an “excuse me” if you both try to hit the water fountain at the same time.

Most of the patrons look like they don’t even need to be at the Gold’s Gym. Weight loss does not seem to be one of their issues. Rather these are pragmatic young adults who already have an impeccably balanced life. They cruise from machine to machine and soberly work through their routines.

This gym has some nice amenities. While it seems to attract the childless crowd, there is a children’s room. It’s a great place to dump a child for an hour or two while Mom or Dad gets their workout. Of course there are plenty of aerobics and dance classes for those so inclined. And for guys who still like to play basketball there is a full sized basketball court available. Alas, my knees will no longer tolerate it.

Although people seem to be there for serious fitness, I have to wonder how many of them are also hoping to bump into Mister or Miss Right. Since overall they are a healthy and attractive lot this should be a prime place to find someone with similar values. (Hint to Gold’s Gym: start your own dating club.) And except possibly for myself, they don’t come to the gym dressed as slobs. Even the guys seem to wear something nicer than gym shorts and a T-shirt. Still there is nothing resembling a club on premises where you can chitchat with fellow patrons. There is though a nice front desk with a staff eager to say hello when you arrive and wish you a nice day when you leave. In the lobby area you can purchase various health foods, most of them high in protein and low in carbohydrates. It’s not unusual to find vendors parked out by the front desk offering tastes of their various healthy concoctions.

While I am more than a bit in awe of this gym, I wonder whether I will renew my membership when it expires. I can’t see stopping using a gym altogether. I see weight training as important as general aerobics toward maintaining my physical health. And it is cost prohibitive to purchase the kind of weight machines I would need at home. Not surprisingly, this gym has every conceivable weight machine. I could spend years working through all of them. Instead I concentrate on cycling through a dozen or so of the ones that do me the most good.

But perhaps I need a smaller gym. Perhaps I need a place where there are more people my own age. Perhaps I need a health club with a few sweat drops on the floors. This Gold’s Gym seems more than a bit surreal at times: the sort of health club you’d expect if June Cleaver were cleaning it. It is hard to imagine any health club that offers a better exercise environment. But perhaps I need a club with some spirit to it. For all its many advantages this club seems a soulless place.