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January at the Gym: The Attack of the Resolutionaries

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 8:14 PM

Everything you ate over the holidays - the cookies, the candy, the spiral-cut ham - every glob has turned to goo and grafted itself to your belly region, the dreaded pooch area. Every bit of it will stay there, stay there until next December and beyond, unless you - you Soft Fitness Virgin, you - resolve to do something about it this very Jan. 1.

What comes next is this:

"They're banging on the machines," the new guys are, says Mike Sponseller. "It's like watching '2001: A Space Odyssey,' " the scene where the ape uses a bone as a club, only instead of discovering a use for tools, the newbies are trying to figure out how to turn on a StairMaster.

January at the Gym: The Attack of the Resolutionaries. A turf struggle. A melodrama played out in moisture-wicking active wear. A new group of people storming the health clubs who have vowed to get fit but cannot, bless them, cannot seem to understand that 1) You do not use your own iPod during yoga; and 2) You do not take three yoga blocks from the common pile and then stack them carefully around you like they are traffic cones protecting your personal zone of zen.

"And you're bumping into naked people in the locker room, and people are waiting for equipment," says Sponseller, who goes to Washington Sports Club and has seen several cycles of January resolutionaries arrive, strive and nosedive at the gyms he's belonged to over the years. He calls the hours between 6 and 8 a.m. and 5 and 7 p.m. the "Red Zones" of chaos.

"January is kind of like our tax season," says Dave Reiseman, a spokesman for Gold's Gym, which has 50 locations in the D.C. metro area, and which can see 100% increases in gym attendance during the first month of the year. "We do a lot of preparation to make sure that new guests" have everything they need for a strong start. Gold's offers an equipment orientation. An eight-week customized health and fitness plan. An infinitely available staff.

Other gyms have similar thorough preparations. The staff at Georgetown's rec center re-racks all their weights, then sits down to brush up on new safety protocols and first aid guidelines. Balance Gym requires that all of its new members meet with personal trainers and physical therapists to ease them into the culture of the gym. The Washington Sports Clubs have been bringing technicians in all through December to service the equipment, and employees are discouraged from using vacation days in January so that all hands are on deck.

All of this preparation is no match for the resolutionary who hogs the 30-minute treadmill for two hours straight, not so much jogging as sauntering in inappropriate foot attire while loudly explaining last week's "Big Love" episode to an unseen party on a cellphone.

(The new guys often head to the treadmills, says Meghan Dimsa, the assistant director of Georgetown's gym. They're intimidated by other equipment, but they know how to walk.)

"I tell our staff that the way they have to think about January is like thinking about a new kid on his first day of school," says Bob Giardina, the chief executive of Town Sports, which owns the Washington Sports Clubs and sees up to a 30% increase in attendance some Januaries. Be gentle. Be kind. The newbies know not what they do.

They know not when they act like abominations of good fitness stewardship, when they are behaving like the gym equivalent of American tourists in giant fanny packs.

Humans have a need for rituals and routine. Humans in gyms display this need in a hyper-developed, 'roidy kind of way, which makes sense: The gym is the place we go to control one of the few things in life we can control (dumpiness) and so it becomes the place where we become the people who try to control everything else (diva-ness!). The gym is a microcosmic symbol for how splendidly the world could work, if only everyone would wait their turn, properly hydrate and remember to wipe down whatever they touched with a lemony Pine-Sol solution.

"I think that in their mind, the new people might have this feeling that the gym is supposed to be like [HBO's] 'Oz,' " says Steve Farina, who has been a member of the Gold's Gym in Ballston for five years and witnesses the arrival of the resolutionaries every year. "Like they're in a prison yard," and they have to prove their strength by hulking out, set after set, oblivious to those waiting in line.

"The spin instructor always asks if anyone is new," says Carmela Clendening, a WSC regular. "But the new people don't raise their hands." Why do they not raise their hands? Someone would help them if they would just raise their hands.

Every gym regular has some kindly piece of advice they would like to give the resolutionaries - something that would make the month of January healthier for everyone.

"Be sure to put the mats back," says Joe Bello, a musician who belongs to Vida gym.

"Don't read newspapers on the weight bench," says Bello's friend as they exit the gym's Logan Circle location on a recent evening.

"Have you seen that?" Bello asks, horrified.

"It used to happen at Results all the time. There was one guy who did it all the time."

Who knows what happened to this guy? Maybe he found a comfy weight bench at a new gym, all the better to relax with the Sunday funnies. Maybe he realized he could read at home, spare himself the membership fee. Or maybe, after a few months, he became attuned to the dirty looks from the exercisers around him and assimilated by putting down the paper and picking up some free weights. Maybe he's out there somewhere now, lord of a gym, watching over his flock of faithfully fit, and ready to explain the rules to the next wave of resolutionaries clustering around the StairMaster like it is a 'Space Odyssey'-ian monolith.

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