January at the Gym: The Attack of the Resolutionaries

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.

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