A perfect fit

Finding the right gym in January can help you stay healthy and motivated all year long

January 06, 2007|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun reporter

Last bit of 2006 business: Let that belt out a notch.

The holiday season is as much about overeating as it is about peace on earth and good will toward shoppers trying to leapfrog a checkout line.

How do we know? People study these things.

A team of researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine a few years ago that the average person gains one pound between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Doesn't sound too worrisome -- but those researchers also found holiday flab tends to adhere like Super Glue and "probably contributes to the increase in body weight that frequently occurs during adulthood."

Maybe humans intuitively sense this. Maybe that's why, once the holiday partying ends, some kind of homing instinct seems to direct us toward a health club.

January is boom time for the fitness industry. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, 1 million Americans will take out club memberships during the first month of the year. New customer traffic can spike as much as 50 percent.

"If people aren't joining a club by Jan. 31, they're probably not joining," says Sharon Nevins, vice president of marketing at Maryland Athletic Club and Wellness Center, or MAC, in Timonium. "That's how dramatic January is."

Nevins adds that the majority of MAC's January newbies have never belonged to a club before or worked out regularly: "The `deconditioned' is our industry term for them."

Dave Rutch, a personal trainer at Strong & Focused Fitness Studio in Sparks, has been in the business 15 years. "It's like clockwork," he says: Every January clubs get flooded with new faces and by March, once the novelty wears off, most have disappeared, seduced by the living-room couch and bags of potato chips.

The churn rate at health clubs is notoriously high: about half of all members drop out. Therefore, when shopping around for one to join, it literally pays to ask the toughest questions of yourself.

Is this a new-leaf whim or a healthy-living commitment? Do you have a goal in mind? If so, how realistic is it?

"This is a lifestyle change," explains Rutch. "This isn't something you're going to do for a month or two. You've kind of got to find where your motivation's coming from. Do you have a valid reason or do you just want to look good?"

Regarding motivation, it would be a bad sign to focus on extraneous factors like, oh, the color scheme of a club. If you only feel comfortable breaking a sweat at Mauve Fitness, your calorie-burning future isn't bright.

Still, one tangential factor does merit very serious

consideration: location.

"The No. 1 one thing is convenience, making sure it fits into their schedule" says Mark Milani, general manager of Merritt's Downtown Athletic Club. "If they have to drive or travel more than a certain number of minutes, they're not going to stick with it."

As a very general rule of thumb (or thigh), fitness novices might want to find a club within 10 minutes of home or work; that gives the Procrastination Devil less time to whisper in your ear.

Family and friends are the best source to tap into for specific club suggestions. However, don't be wedded to word-of-mouth recommendations. Those folks may be living on a higher fitness plane or not value certain amenities (child care or a swimming pool, for example) you cherish. Also, friends' promises to "work out together" can wilt quicker than a rose in a steam room.

There's no substitute for first-hand experience, says MAC's Sharon Nevins. Her top club-hunting tip is to request a trial membership -- and use it. Most facilities offer 15-day test drives. Some offer 30.

And what if a club you fancy doesn't do trial runs?

"Leave and go to another one," says Nevins.

MAC recently launched a "Healthy Start" promotion to attract potential clients who are in more advanced stages of deconditioning. A doctor's referral is required.

Participants pay $60 for a 60-day temporary membership supervised by a staff nurse. That fee is applied to the standard rate if they later opt to join full-time.

"These people are literally hand-held through the program," says Nevins, "and so far half of those people are becoming members."

Rosemary Haynes, a 46-year-old working mother from Timonium, signed up for Healthy Start in November after an annual physical revealed she had borderline high blood pressure.

Years ago Haynes briefly belonged to a health club, so she's making a fitness comeback of sorts. Two days a week she does an hour of weight lifting and cardio exercise on a bike or treadmill with a MAC trainer. Two other days she does a half-hour of cardio work on her own.

"In two weeks, I lost three pounds and my blood pressure is down," says Haynes. "There's a family history of high blood pressure, so it's really important to recover my stamina and energy and get stronger."

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