Out of Work but Still Working Out

For many unemployed high-tech people, the health club is their last remaining status symbol. Some use the gym to work out frustrations or even to find new job opportunities

"Your new life starts now," declares the marketing campaign for Great Shape, a Herzliya health club. Members of the club, which opened in late 1995, may indeed have found that new life, but they also discovered that it can easily slip out of their grasp, just like unrealized options.

Until a year and a half ago, 65 percent of the club's clientele was employed at local high-tech companies and lived a lifestyle characterized by the cruel demands on their time but with an unprecedented level of pampering and luxury. Part of the demanding daily grind of the high-tech employee included eating in restaurants on company vouchers, traveling abroad and having memberships to prestigious gyms. They were offered these bonuses as compensation for the loss of sleep and the other sacrifices made in their private lives. But in contrast to the other perks, the health club membership was the implementation of a strategic decision inherited by the high-tech companies from their American counterparts, which have elevated the art of employee productivity and loyalty into a veritable science.

"When we first opened the club at the beginning of the high-tech boom there wasn't that much awareness of fitness," recalls Yaron Sela, a manager and partner at Great Shape. "But membership of the club isn't just another employee perk. It is a calculated move with the objective of enhancing employee efficiency and recharging the worker's batteries."

One of the first companies to sign up its 400 employees for the health club was Teledata, a subsidiary of the American company ADC. "The company conducted an in-depth study to make sure it wasn't wasting its money," says Sela. "It asked us for reports on the frequency of visits by its employees to the club and it found that, the more employees were working out, the fewer sick days they took."

Many companies made physical activity an integral part of their formula for success. Many set up their own gyms, others offered fitness club memberships, appealing to their young and well-off employees through the location, design and image they chose to represent.

However, muscular workers pumping with adrenaline and motivation cannot make up for the lack of a profit-producing business model. Since the start of the slump in the high-tech industry in March 2000, many employees have been let go and have quite suddenly been stripped of the status symbols they had acquired during the simulated period of plenty. The meal vouchers for upscale restaurants have vanished, along with the espresso machines, company cars, cellular phones, handsome salaries and trips abroad. One of the only vestiges of the old lifestyle still remaining is the health club membership, a last reminder of the old-new life.

"Whenever I go to sign in at the unemployment office, I recognize faces from the health club," says Maya, a former high-tech employee in her 20s who works out at Holmes Place. Until recently, she worked at a cellular applications firm in the Herzliya area, and bought a discounted membership at the health club chain through her workplace. Maya used to work out at the Herzliya branch, where 55 percent of the clientele worked at high-tech companies, but since her dismissal, she has been going to the Azrieli Center branch in Tel Aviv, three or four times a week.

"I hear conversations at the club between people who have been fired, some of whom spend a great deal of time working out. Sometimes they arrange to go together to sign in at the unemployment bureau," she says. But, like her work in high-tech, her membership in the prestigious club evidently will not last long. "I'll use the membership until it runs out and then I'll probably move to a cheaper club. It's my guess that a large percentage of the members who signed up through their companies they worked at will not be renewing membership," she says.

Itzik Ben-David, the marketing deputy director-general for Holmes Place in Israel, admits there has been a slight decrease in the membership numbers, but says that existing members are spending more time at the club. "One of the more important pieces of advice the placement companies give dismissed workers is to continue to be active during the interval between jobs and not to go into a decline," he says. "At tough times like now, people are spending more time at the club. They're looking for an optimistic environment and are trying to alleviate the tension. The club also helps them maintain contact with people and make new contacts. It is a good place to hear about new job offers. Aside from that, people have already developed an appreciation for a certain lifestyle and are not willing to give up on it."

Nevertheless, Vered, 28, gradually cut down on the frequency of her visits to the health club after she was let go from a Herzliya-based high-tech company. When she was working, she took out a discounted membership at Holmes Place (for NIS 240 a month, instead of the full fare of about NIS 5,000 a year). Since she lost her job in March 2001, she has managed to find new work in another field. "I used to work long hours and come to the club before and after work. Sometimes I would pass on the restaurant vouchers and instead of eating go to work out in the middle of the day," she recounts.

After her dismissal, she began to exercise at the Tel Aviv branch. "Some out-of-work high-tech people use their free time to spend the whole day at the health club. I met other people who had been let go at the unemployment bureau and at the health club, and we'd always talk about how poor and miserable we were. I had thought that if I wasn't employed, I would work out more often, but it didn't happen. Actually, when I didn't have a regular daily schedule, I had less strength to leave the house."

In an attempt to extend a helping hand to its unemployed high-tech membership, Great Shape has become an informal job placement company. Roy Weisswasser, a partner in the club, is in touch with about 40 high-tech companies in the area and sends in the resumes of his members to companies that are recruiting. "As a result of the high-tech crisis, a lot of customers who lost their jobs have come to me and asked me to help them find work. I decided to take it seriously," explains Weisswasser, who devotes about 90 minutes a day to the task. He has not been able to find work for all 50 people on his list, "but I did find work for more than 10 people, which gives me a great sense of satisfaction," he says.

His motivation, aside from pure altruism ("the members of the club are my friends"), is rooted in dollars and cents. "The people who have lost their jobs leave Herzliya Pituah and do not renew their membership. If I find them work in the area, they renew their membership, and both sides come out ahead," Weisswasser explains.

The atmosphere is also different for the still-gainfully employed members of the club. "It used to be that the main subject of conversation was options, but no one talks about them anymore, only about dismissals. People are nervous and worried," says Yaron Sela of Great Shape. The club has even adopted a new exercise technique that fits in with the spirit of the times. Dozens of members now come for evening classes in kick-boxing - a fast-paced exercise technique that is conducted to the beat of house or trance music. The class is extremely popular and has a long waiting list. "Lots of high-tech people come for these classes," Sela says. "They arrive at the club in a dejected state, they put on the gloves, punch and hit at a furious rate and go back to the office. That is how they work off their frustrations with the situation."

Slowly, surely and safely

It is precisely those people who sign up for the gym with much excitement and vow to get into shape and get fit within a short time who are most in danger of suffering injuries. This phenomenon is so widespread in the U.S. that it has even been awarded the title of the "holidays membership syndrome." Those suffering from it sign up for the gym in October or November, work out as often as possible, exerting themselves on the machines with the aim of looking their best for New Year's Eve. Come March and April, sufferers can be found clogging up the waiting rooms of back specialists and orthopedists.

And so, here's some advice from sports doctors as to how to avoid injury:

l Always start by warming-up. Begin your aerobics or weights workout with at least 10 minutes of stretching, or walking or some easy pedaling on the exercise bike. Those above 40 years of age should lengthen the warm-up to 15-20 minutes. Muscles, tendons and ligaments can take more pressure when they are warm.

l Begin by lifting light weights. If you use weights that are too heavy, you'll have a problem getting out of bed the next day. To start with, choose a weight that tires the muscles after 12-15 lifts. Two weeks later, you can move onto heavier weights that you can lift 8-10 times. In the end, this will build up your strength more.

l Start with the weight machines. They require less coordination than free weights and are also much safer for beginners. There is also no danger that you will drop the weights on yourself or someone else.

l Learn how to use the machines properly. Ask the instructors to show you how to use the machines and equipment properly: how to hold the weights, how to suit the machines to your physical build. Small adjustments could make a huge difference to the effectiveness of your workout.

l Don't overdo it. Don't extend your workout time, and don't add more than 10 percent to the weight you lift every week.

l Vary your work-out. Some people tend to stick to one physical activity - the treadmill, spinning or weight lifting, for example. But in the gym, follow the principle of a diversified workout. Repeating one physical activity over and over again increases the danger of injury caused by overusing certain muscles. If you run one day, the following day focus on the upper body, using for example the rowing machine. Make sure that your program is balanced between strength, cardiovascular stamina and flexibility.

l Don't rush with weights. Lifting a weight too quickly could harm your muscles, and it's not effective either. Spend at least two seconds lifting the weight, and another two setting it down again.

l Listen to your body. Learn the difference between a slight ache in your muscles after a good workout and pain that signals you should get checked for a possible injury. A "good pain" is dull and very general. A "bad pain" is very sharp and concentrated in a specific part of the body.

l Allocate time to rest. People tend to think that the more they work out, the quicker they'll reach the desired results. But if you workout too much, your body will simply collapse. With weight-lifting, plan your training program so that you do not work on the same group of muscles day after day. With aerobics, vary the program - one day a light workout, followed by a day with more vigorous training. And in any case, set two or three days aside in the week for a total rest from exercise.