The Fatties Come Late in the Morning

As elsewhere in life, a well-defined class system is in effect at most health clubs. And as elsewhere in life, being young, wealthy and beautiful is always a very big plus

Those who look back longingly at gym class in high school, when the kids who brought up the rear still got a passing grade - for effort - should not even think of setting foot in a health club. Or more correctly, it would be best for them to come to the club when no one else is there, and try hard not to bump into the personal trainers and their robotic clients. In general, it would be better if they were young, unattached, good-looking and wealthy. That's essentially the stratum of clientele that is most sought after by health clubs, which also have strict, if unwritten, rules of behavior, and which impose exacting dress and status codes.

The physical workout population may be categorized into several different, clearly delineated classes. D., who works out at three different health clubs (one of which is at her place of work), differentiates between the "serious people" who are accompanied by paid personal trainers, and all the rest. The personal trainer works with his client, moving from machine to machine, preparing the machines before the client's arrival, and elegantly disregarding any hoi polloi who may have been there first and are awaiting their turn.

Below them on the class ladder are the almost-professional exercisers: they spend hours on end at the club, are intimately familiar with all of the machines and exercise routines, and they feel as if they are the reigning founder-members of the club. Ranked behind them are the good-looking and the well-off, the younger men and women, the muscular (male and female), who kid around with the club's trainers and who put on a cheerful, relaxed expression as soon as they arrive at the club. At the bottom of the scale are the older and heavier exercisers, including the post-40 mothers. The club management knows they will be there no matter what, and they will always constitute the weak link.

Dress codes also vary according to the club's location and the clients' favored fashion statement. At some exclusive health clubs, such as at the country clubs in Ramat Aviv Gimel and Ramat Hasharon, the clientele are always smartly presentable, and sport all of the right brand names. However, the dress code is not always determined by geographical location: There are clubs situated in the business districts of the bigger cities at which the exercisers may be from the upper social and economic classes, but it's also okay to come and work out wearing simple sweatpants and faded T-shirts. Sloppy attire is the bon ton, albeit well stylized.

As opposed to what one may be inclined to believe, flirtation is not the rule at all health clubs, even though physicality is certainly plays a dominant factor in every club. Exhibitionists will also feel comfortable there, especially in front of and in back of the frosted glass walls in the shower-room. As in army showers, people usually make do with cursory glances, and no one seems to be overly concerned about public nudity.

The counselors are also divided into different categories: Udi Salameh of the California health club chain says that he frequently advises his clients on proper nutrition. "We always recommend items that can be removed from the menu," he says. Then there are counselors like Chen Lustig, of the Holmes Place chain, who try to strike up a personal relationship with every exerciser and do not rule out a relationship that extends beyond the doors of the club. "The idea is to communicate a good attitude and to be nice, and if that develops into friendship, then that's great," he says. At times, the clubs themselves make efforts toward cultivating relationships between their members outside the gym, and organize parties and other social events.

The relationship between coach and exerciser, male or female, is sometimes reminiscent of the relationship between hairdressers and their customers, including the sharing of dark secrets, recommendations for proper nutrition and the traditional kiss at the start and end of each session. Unlike the hair salon, however, physical contact is part and parcel of the relationship here, and is accepted by both sides. Some counselors view the physical contact and support of their charges as part of the job, some say that they adapt themselves to the attitude of the specific client.

At the Everybody health club in Tel Aviv, part of the counselors' job is to improve the self-image of the clientele. They walk around, shouting out words of encouragement, start conversations or even flirt with the clients, with the objective of improving the exerciser's feelings of self-esteem as they perspire and pant on the treadmill.

The list of unwritten codes is lengthy: Exercisers who don't feel confident of themselves come to work out in the late morning hours, after the early risers have already left the gym. Those who want to combine workout with social event frequent the health club in the evening hours. "It used to be that people were embarrassed to grunt and groan while they were exerting themselves in the gym. Nowadays it is acceptable, people have gotten more relaxed. After all, it isn't exactly a drug store here. People come expressly to sweat," says Udi Salameh.

As one might expect, men are more confident of themselves and their external appearance than are women. "A lot of women come to the health club wearing a sweatshirt wrapped around their hips, even in the summer, to hide their rear end," says Salameh. "I'm not exactly sure why they do it, but one thing is clear: Men with similar physical attributes will wear shorts and feel perfectly at ease with themselves."

Exercisers at different health clubs report on another discomfort that women are willing to accept: They will often wear sheer panty hose in order not to call attention to varicose veins in their legs, and will perspire into the nylon stockings, even in summer.

Conversely, a woman who feels good about herself will almost immediately wear a tank top, and those who feel even more self-confident will feel no compunction about wearing tight running shorts. Others will make do with a baggy training suit. Most health clubs do not allow men to work out in sleeveless undershirts for reasons of aesthetics and to avoid sweat on the machines, and all exercisers are supposed to work out with a towel close at hand.

Talking on a cell phone is a no-no, and it is a little dicey to change TV channels without asking permission from the counselors (the most popular channels are Channel Two, Sports Channel, MTV, Fashion Channel, and the Family Channel at night, thanks to Eli Yatzpan).

It may be hard to believe, but there are couch potatoes even at the gym: "Some exercisers prefer to come to the health club, sit on the sofa and pass the time," relates Salameh. "They come mostly in the evening. The people who come during the day barely talk during their workouts. Conversations are acceptable, if at all, only when walking on the treadmill, and that depends on the partner across from you. If he's struggling to breathe, it's obvious that you shouldn't tire him out with idle conversation."

At most health clubs, exercisers are permitted to use headphones, and can also bring CDs that will be played aloud for everyone present, but this might require a long wait until the powers-that-be see fit to play your disk. Club, trance and house music is not always warmly received at all health clubs, and many prefer to play the music channels on television.

Even the trends of body shaping at the health clubs vary. Exercises for strengthening the stomach muscles and exercises for shaping the shoulders are still in highest demand, but just maybe, you can relax a little: A newly emerging trend at health clubs is baby fat - the natural, even full, look. Shapely is still very much in, but does not necessarily require exercisers to sport rippling abdominal muscles. The Mel C look may be out; J.Lo is coming into style.

The Ten commandments

1. Thou shalt not sit on equipment thou are not using, even if thou art simply resting between sets.

2. Thou shalt adjust the weights and the height of the machine according to thy needs, but thou shalt not forget to put them back to their original state at the end of the workout.

3. Thou shalt avoid sighing, groaning and breathing loudly during thy workout. The gym may not be a public library, but is also is not a wrestling arena nor is it a delivery room.

4. Thou shalt not bring large bags into the gym, it is already crowded enough. Such encumbrances can be kept in lockers.

5. Thou shalt not throw thy weights to the floor once done with them. Put them carefully back in place. Throwing them down is machismo and presents great danger to thy toes.

6. Thou shalt take a towel with thee to thy workout and mop up thy sweat from the machine thou uses.

7. Thou shalt not hog the water cooler. Other people also want to drink, and this is neither the time nor the place to fill up thy 2 liter bottle.

8. Thou shalt stick to time limits. If thy gym sets 20-30 minute time limits at peak times, it is a sign that other people are waiting in line.

9. Thou shalt not come late to classes, disturb the instructor nor act against his/her instructions.

10. Thou shalt act graciously in the changing rooms, and not push in the showers. If thou has spread thy clothes along the entire bench, thou will force someone else to put on her socks standing up.