The gym and the pursuit of physical fitness has become an integrated part of modern Western society. As any new idea gets popular, it soon gets taken over by the corporate apparatus, which turns it into something completely new to appeal to our fast and hectic lifestyles. It happened to restaurants, coffee shops and now it's happening to our gyms.
In the last ten years fitness centre chains have sprung up and spread across the world. These have developed a whole new culture and processes that could easily bewilder and confuse any unwary individual. The purpose of this entry is not to tell you how to lose weight or build muscles, but to do something much harder. The purpose is to arm you all with the knowledge of the cultural processes that will allow you to survive in a modern gym.
Know Your Gym
There are many different gym chains around at the moment, and most hotels and resorts have gym facilities. Fundamentally, these are all the same, and joining one is as simple as choosing whichever chain has hassled you the most, or least, to join. Upon joining, by law you will be given a tour of the facilities and its equipment. Yet this is only for health and safety reasons, and does not give you the really important information.
This is where you enter and sign in into the gym. Most gyms have electronic swipe cards for members to sign in with. This makes the whole process as quick and painless as possible, negating the need for idle chit-chat with the receptionist. This is especially important since the reception also doubles as the gym's shop. Here you will find the many wonders that science and folk medicine have to offer to improve your body; all expensive and, some might well argue, all completely useless.
The swipe cards used will almost always contain a picture of you, and if you are successful, will bear no resemblance to you after a few months. If this happens, it can now be used as a handy reminder to you of how worthwhile all the membership fees are.
This area is also the location of the gym's noticeboard, where vital information on the different exercise activities is found. Always go here for information first, because if you ask a member of staff, they will only go to the notice board to find the answer for you.
Even though it consists of just rows of lockers and benches, the changing rooms will never have enough of either for everyone to get comfortably changed in. This means that much of your time will be taken up hunting for enough space to take off your clothes without elbowing the person next to you. It is also the quietest part of the gym, since most people are either too shy or exhausted to acknowledge other people's presence while in there.
Like all changing rooms, the floors will be damp, sticky and a breeding ground for foot fungus. One possible solution is to wear flip-flops in the shower, or more simply, say to hell with it and just dry your feet last before putting your shoes on.
Do not be under any misconception; the shower facilities will never be as clean as your own, unless you joined on a student discount. Depending on the quality of your gym, and your gender, the showers will be either open or have cubicles. If they are open, then normal public nudity rules apply. Look straight ahead, don't talk and think about boring thoughts.
Good gyms may have soap and shampoo dispensers, but these will obviously be empty. If you have forgotten to bring your own, then hunt around the shower area. Sometimes other members leave empty bottles around the showers, and if you collect enough of them you will get enough to give yourself a decent wash. They will also tempt you with a hair-dryer for you to use free of charge. Yet if it does work, it will only blast out freezing cold air. The golden rule is that it doesn't matter how good the gym is - you will also walk out scruffier and more dishevelled than when you entered.
Free Weights Area
This is where the muscle-pounders are located, and is the last bastion of the old-style gym. Named after the type of equipment found there, free weights are the basic weightlifting equipment. The weights are stored on racks, and can be used on different kinds of bars, depending on what exercise you want to do. This area also contains different kinds of benches and is normally found in a dark corner of the gym. Although it's becoming smaller and smaller, this area will be the loudest part of the gym, as the muscle-pounders shout words of encouragement to each other.
The Exercise Area
This is the main part of the gym, and contains the equipment that most people will use. The layout of the equipment will be in a series of tightly-packed rows. It has been especially designed so that it is impossible to walk directly to the machine that you want; instead, you have to waste your time walking up and down the length of the gym, thus limiting the time you spend actually working out. This may be the gym's way of slowing you down, but at least you can say you spent an hour down the gym, even though you spent 30 minutes of that walking to each machine.
Conversations with other people should be avoided while you're in this area. Not because it's distracting, but because it will not be heard over the loud music booming out of a tired set of old speakers. The only way not to listen to this music is to make use of the video/audio system that nearly all gyms now have. This is a system of televisions and radio stations, which members can plug earphones into and use at each exercise machine. An added bonus to this system is that it is another way to shut out the outside world and avoid having to talk to other members of the gym.
The equipment in this area can be broken down into two types, the resistance and the cardio machines. The resistance machines are used to exercise different muscle groups, just like the free-weights. The differences between the resistance machines and the free-weights are that the free-weights give you a better workout, but the machines are easier to use and are more consistent. Whichever you choose, the same programme can be used on either the free-weights or the resistance machines. The cardio machines are used to improve fitness and burn calories, and include treadmills, rowers, bikes and cross-trainers. Most exercise programmes suggest that a good session using these machines should last about 40 to 60 minutes and cover several different machines.
No two gyms have exactly the same pieces of equipment, so you will have to be taught how to use each piece individually. Still, this is a good opportunity to annoy the gym staff and get your money's worth out of them.
Know the People
Many different people go to the gym, some of them even stranger than you. Yet, they all can be put into several different groups by observing their actions. Once you know this, you can better prepare yourself for when you encounter them, and you can even gain something from them.
This group is made up of both the exercise trainers and the gym management staff. The exercise staff can be easily identified by their uniform of a gym T-shirt with logo, and a pair of tracksuit bottoms. Be careful with these people; they may seem friendly and helpful, but really they hate anyone who interrupts them from the real reason for working there. That is, to work out, to listen to music and to chat up the good-looking customers. Remember, they can be in charge of your exercise programme. So if you annoy them, they can make some unpleasant changes to the length of time you are on the treadmill.
The gym management staff is mostly made up of a manager and a receptionist. Managers are rarely seen in public, and spend most of their time locked away in their office, where nobody else can enter. They only seem to emerge when they hear words such as 'dangerous machine', 'major injury' and 'suing the company' being bandied about the gym.
The receptionist, on the other hand, is almost impossible to avoid. Do not be fooled by their pleasant manner; their sole purpose in the gym is to make you part with your money. Not only will they hound you for your membership fees, they will constantly try and sell you tons of extras and merchandise. It is also virtually impossible to cancel a membership in front of them. Only by telephone, or preferably via text message, can this be achieved.
As previously mentioned this group of people will always be found in the free-weights area, and spend their time in the gym repeatedly exercising that one muscle group all day. They are predominantly male, and can be recognised by the fingerless gloves they use to protect their delicate hands. They also carry round little notebooks, in order that they are able to record the details of each particular exercise they have done that day. In many ways, they are the trainspotters of the exercise world.
The muscle-pounder is a valuable source of information and guidance on how to build and tone the muscles. There is no need to ask for help. They will take much enjoyment in watching other people exercise and pointing out the slightest flaws in what they are doing. If you manage to befriend a muscle-pounder, they will also be quite happy to spend all day shouting words of encouragement at you.
The Sewing Circle
Some might say that it's one of the underlying laws of nature that women like nothing more than a good chat, and will happily while away the hours gossiping with their friends. Now, thanks to modern exercise equipment, they can do this and burn calories at the same time. So at each gym you will find an established Sewing Circle of women.
This group is mostly made up of middle-aged women, and moves as a pack between different sets of exercise machines, chatting away and being social. Although harmless enough, the fact that they move as one and spend their time nattering loudly means that it can be annoying if you get stuck behind them. A simple tactic to resolve this is to ask for the music to be changed to either hardcore rap or thrash metal. This will either drive them away or at least drown out their conversation.
The Migratory Flocks
These are seasonal members that flock to the gym at specific times of the year. These times are normally after Christmas in January and the early summer months before the holidays. Individual members of the group maybe seen off-season, but these sightings can be linked to specific events, such as big birthdays and weddings.
Members of this group are very easy to spot, since no matter how hard they exercise in a season, they'll look exactly the same when they return in a few months. They can also be spotted by the brand new sports equipment they use. Although they make the gym busy during these seasonal peaks, they are extremely harmless and much enjoyment can be had in watching them cope with any changes in the layout and equipment of the gym that have occurred since their last visit.
The numbers of people that can be slotted into this group vary from gym to gym. However, there will be at least one or two of these in each, and they are very easy to spot. These are people for whom fitness and exercise has become a fundamental part of their life. They can be found in the gym, working out, day in and day out. Their schedules and programmes have been perfected to such an extent that you can set your watch by them.
Members of this group can be spotted by the fact that they are dressed in expensive purpose-designed gym clothing, and by their stern and concentrated faces. They are the most anti-social group in the gym and hate nothing more than being interrupted during a session by the outside world. The most dangerous thing you can do in any gym is to start using a piece of equipment that a fitness fanatic was just about to.
The final group you will come across is probably the largest, encompassing most people. These are the people that regularly attend the gym, but are extremely reluctant to do so and hate every minute of it. They dislike the time and effort it entails, but still go. This is because deep down they know that regular exercise is a good thing, and it would be nice to stop getting out of breath every time they go to the fridge.
This group can be spotted either by their total normality (since they will be dressed in the clothes they would wear about town) or by the looks of embarrassment on their faces. Although they rarely speak or even make eye contact, they are friendly and can be relied upon to make casual jokes about their level of fitness. But remember, they can be self-conscious, so don't laugh too much.
This group is the sworn enemy of the band of fitness fanatics, so you have to be careful. They resent the reluctants' ability to keep fit while not putting in too much effort. So if you talk to or join this group, they will especially despise you. However, since the fanatics despise most people anyway, there's no great loss.
Now that you have the important information on what a gym looks like, what the equipment is used for and the people that go there, you're ready to survive going to a modern gym. All you have to do now is focus on the 'easy' part - getting fit.