The Case for a Health Club Stimulus

January 31, 2009

Attached below is my open letter to President Obama addressing the under-explored and underrated fitness crisis. As Congress strives to draft a workable economic stimulus, I’ve decided the time is right to make the case for a health club stimulus.

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Dear President Obama:

I applaud your rhetoric about getting people back to work for a stronger America. I too see widespread loafing at the gym and people stuck on fitness plateaus. In fact, we have a fitness crisis in America.  Every day, legions of people wander around the gyms of this country without ever making any progress, if they even bother to show up at all.

Most pundits agree that the root cause of our economic turmoil is the housing crisis.  After careful study, I’ve discovered that the pathologies behind our housing crisis and our fitness crisis are strikingly similar. Though one is destabilizing the world economy and the other is disrupting my workout, I think you’ll find that the justification for a bailout applies equally to both.

The housing crisis began when lenders (some well-intentioned and some greedy) permitted people without sufficient resources to purchase homes. The fitness crisis began when gym owners (some well-intentioned and some greedy) permitted people without sufficient drive to purchase memberships. Banks and mortgage brokers colluded to create complicated financial instruments that hid the true cost of home ownership. Gyms and equipment manufacturers colluded to create complicated machines that averted the pain of a serious workout.

In short, home ownership became the province of millions of people who should have been renters. Gym membership became the province of thousands of people who should have just gone for a walk.

The housing bubble and gym bubble inflated in parallel. People took advantage of surging home equity to purchase sports cars, boats and other pricey toys. Gyms used the revenue from swelling membership rolls to purchase oversized kickballs, giant rubber bands and other pricey toys. Banks enabled spendthrifts to refinance with exotic loan arrangements though responsible homeowners stuck with traditional notions of spending and saving. Personal trainers worked out newcomers with gimmicks from the functional fitness fad though knowledgeable gym members stuck with real weight training and rigorous cardio.

Today, the glut of housing inventory continues to pull down the market; with the economy in decline, even fewer people are available to purchase homes. Gyms are now cluttered with equipment no one uses; having maxed out their equipment expenditures, health clubs have no money left to buy the equipment that is good and worthwhile.

Mr. President, we are in need of a fitness stimulus. Gyms require money to rebuild their infrastructure – to invest in better machines, to purchase cardio equipment and to expand free weight offerings. I urge you to give fitness buffs the tools we need to get moving again.

Sincerely,

Keva Silversmith


Ready to Go

January 18, 2009

Whenever a holiday approaches, I’m reminded of my old swim coach’s attitude toward days off. When a teammate asked in early summer whether we’d have practice on Independence Day, my coach said: “The Russians have practice on July 4th, as do the Germans … you can bet we’ll be practicing too!”

Years later, it occurred to me that every athlete celebrates an Independence Day. During the course of a year, I’m sure that national holidays worldwide interfere with the same number of training days. Over time, workouts missed due to illness or injury probably even themselves out too. What I can’t account for, however, are training disparities related to fitness center disasters.

It’s never a good sign when you turn into your gym’s parking lot and find two fire trucks sitting outside the club’s front door. As I sense my workout slipping away, I start to descend through the five stages of grief: Denial (maybe the entire firehouse decided to exercise right now?); anger (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! As if my workouts aren’t already challenging enough!); then bargaining (I’m here only for the treadmill, so I’m fine if the free weight area has burned to the ground). Inside, I learn that an electrical circuit has blown, so the gym remains open for everything except equipment that plugs into a socket, like a treadmill.

As I slink back out of the facility with my gym bag unopened, my depression gives way to acceptance: There’s got to be a vacation day somewhere in the world, right?


Warm Up

December 26, 2008

Though health clubs often spend lavishly to make the gym experience more pleasant, I’d rather see the money put towards making the time more productive.  For example, I appreciate the unlimited supply of gym towels, but I’d just as soon have my sweat drip all over a new StairMaster. Likewise, I enjoy watching SportsCenter in the locker room, but I’d prefer to make my own highlights with a better leg press machine. In fact, I’d crap in a gym’s outhouse and shower in recycled seawater if it meant I could establish a long term relationship with my favorite equipment.

There is one gym amenity, however, that is absolutely indispensible: the sauna.

Years ago, during my first winter in Ann Arbor, I discovered the best way to begin a pre-workout warm up: head directly from the outside into the rec center’s sauna. I stripped off my ski hat, gloves and parka only after I was stationed securely inside the heated cabin. (Bonus fact: MSN Weather says average January temperatures in Ann Arbor are colder than in Anchorage, AK.)

Though the weather I’m dealing with today doesn’t quite rival the Rust Belt, I frequent gyms whose approach to the sauna still leaves me cold. At one gym, an out-of-order sign has hung from the wood door since October; another gym’s sauna shuts itself off after about 20 minutes and requires a manual re-start (a huge disappointment if you’re the first to enter); a third gym has no sauna at all.

By its nature, a gym is a cold place, filled with iron bars, vinyl-covered equipment pads and high drafty ceilings. Furthermore, when I work out during lunch, my gym clothes have been sitting in a parked car for hours; imagine the exact opposite sensation of putting on clothes fresh out of the dryer. In total, my deepening chill isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s downright dangerous: cold muscles don’t react well with heavy weights.

With the sauna unavailable, I’ve developed a new strategy for generating locker room warmth: I point the nozzle of an electric hand dryer skyward, pull my shirt over the vent, and gleefully press the button.


Emergency Bailout

December 22, 2008

Several years ago, a friend and I were driving at night down the main strip that cuts through Charlottesville, VA.  A severe electrical storm suddenly killed the power to much of the city, including the traffic lights at some busy crossroads.  As we slowed near one major intersection, we were relieved to see that a policeman down the road recognized the problem, switching on his emergency lights as he approached.  Dumbfounded, we watched as the police car continued to accelerate, speeding through the intersection before its lights flipped back off, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. hyperextension

Yesterday, a gym staff member noticed me struggling with the hip pad adjustment on the hyperextension bench.  I was trying to figure out which bolts I could tighten by hand, if only to stabilize this hunk of junk for a couple of sets.

The fellow approached and said: “For your height, the pad should probably be set at number two.”

“Actually,” I said, “I’m concerned that the entire piece of equipment is about to fall apart.”

“Well, hmm,” he said, “it does look like it should probably be tightened.  I guess …” He looked up as if someone had called his name.  The guy began drifting off towards another part of the gym, leaving me to fend for myself as I continued with my battlefield repair.


Door Man

July 6, 2008

A few years ago my gym closed the men’s locker room for renovation, and during this time turned the women’s locker room into a unisex bathroom. I don’t remember how this played out exactly – I guess showering was reserved for only those without the least sense of modesty. I do recall thinking like a third-grade boy how cool it was to be hanging out in the women’s bathroom, if only just to throw my gym bag into a locker. I also felt there was sure to be trouble when the men’s room finally reopened, and guys still walked into the ladies’ room out of force of habit.

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of an exterior locker room door. For example, my gym was able to cover the ladies’ room door with warnings during and after renovation – one last deterrent against a co-gender calamity. At many gyms, however, the locker room entrances are nothing more than cavernous openings, with privacy achieved through the architecture of interior walls.

I recently worked out at a gym I hadn’t visited in a number of years. The entire gym had been overhauled, and the locker rooms were completely redone. For whatever reason, the location of the men’s and women’s locker rooms had also been reversed. Only a small sign on the wall by each opening indicated which members belonged where.

Just like old times, I powered through a tough workout at this gym. I finished exercising and wandered into the men’s room, my head down in a post-workout fog.

When I looked up, I was surprised not only by how substantially the layout of the men’s room had changed in the last hour, but also by the presence of two women wearing only shorts and bras. I suddenly realized I had two choices. I could either say “Oops, sorry!” and sprint out of there, clearing my conscience but drawing attention to myself. Or, I could quietly reverse course and slip away like some peeping-tom. While I debated these choices in my head, my legs took over. I spun away from my blunder and rushed out, diving into the sanctuary of the adjacent men’s room.