A new year, a new you - until the couch calls

January 08, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

AT BALLY'S Total Fitness in Towson yesterday, the dream of total body transformation was very much alive, this being a mere week into the new year and too early for the usual crushing disappointment to come.

If you wanted diversity, brother, this was the place to be.

Low-carbers mingled with Weight Watchers. The spinners mixed with the Pilates disciples.

The treadmill regulars and the recumbent bikers, the free-weight addicts and those who pursue muscles from pulleys and machines, all were getting along splendidly.

Oh, it was a beautiful thing to see, a rainbow coalition of the sweaty and the purposeful shimmering under the harsh fluorescent lights.

And, as this club does not have a pool, there wasn't one fat guy in a Speedo, either.

"We've come a long way," I said to the man huffing and puffing next to me on the StairMaster. "I'm feeling the love in this room. How 'bout you?"

The man glared and said nothing. But I was used to this - I get it at home all the time - and did not take it personally at all.

As I tortured myself on the treadmill - I can stand about 20 minutes on the damned thing and then get so bored I want to lie down and take a nap - it occurred to me that the same scene was being enacted in thousands of gyms and health clubs all over the country.

The message being beaten into Americans now is this: We're all fat pigs. Sixty-five percent of the country, we're reminded over and over again, is overweight or obese.

Put the fork down every once in a while, the experts say. Get off your duff and do something.

So we flock to gyms and health clubs every year at this time, making good on our New Year's resolutions to drop the weight, tone up and blah, blah, blah.

But the flocking seems to last only a few weeks; then we're back on the couch and parachuting into the Cheez Doodles again.

On the bank of TVs in front of me now there appeared a commercial for fitness guru John Basedow and his freakish rock-hard abs, upon which you could apparently park a Dodge Durango.

I looked around the room. How many of us were watching this Basedow commercial and thinking: Another week, maybe two, and I'll look just like that guy.

And, of course, the truth is, most of us have a better chance of seeing God than of ever having abs like that.

Look, I haven't seen my abs since I was 4. And unless they lock me in the trunk of a car for five weeks with no food, I'll never see them again.

Still, everywhere at Bally yesterday, the idea of renewal, of transformation, of regeneration, was hammered home.

There were signs advertising weight-management products and exercise equipment, energy enhancers and performance supplements.

There were signs for Lean Cuisine meals and mega-strength, pro-performance Tylenol, for helping you bounce back from those hellish, three-hour workouts, which maybe three people in the country actually do.

There was even a sign advertising, of all things, Bacardi rum.

"Who knew? The skinny on Bacardi and Diet Coke," the sign proclaimed. "0 grams carbs, 0 grams sugar, 66 total calories."

OK, I am not saying the implicit message of this sign is: After a tough workout, why not get loaded on Bacardi? But a health club is a funny place for a rum ad, isn't it?

What's next, a Bud Light sign over the triceps machine? Posters for Marlboro Ultra-Lights in the stretching area? ("Half the tar! 3.2 mg of nicotine! 0 carbs!")

Anyway, I tried to find out how many new members the Towson Bally had signed up this January, so I could play that ever-popular game: How many of these wheezers will be here in six weeks?

But no one on the staff was talking.

When you pull out a pen and notebook at most large companies these days, they tend to react like you just pulled out a grenade.

Their eyes bug out of their head. We can't talk, they tell you. Everything has to be cleared by corporate headquarters.

A Bally flack in Chicago, John Harris, said he didn't have specific figures for the club in Towson.

But he said the chain, with 380 clubs nationwide, typically signs up 65,000 new members in January. Do the math and you'll find that's about 170 new members per club.

Harris said he didn't have any dropout rates, either. But anyone who's ever belonged to a health club can tell you they're sky-high.

The lure of the couch is strong.

The temptation of the Cheez Doodles can be overwhelming.

The same can't be said of the treadmill.

Sometimes, you just don't feel the love.

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