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An Exercise in Caution : Finding Your Way Through the Health Club Jungle in Five Easy Steps

February 16, 1988|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Here, in the land of a million workouts, vowing to join a gym is the easy part. Finding the perfect fitness palace is something else again and can be as fatiguing as a long walk on a short treadmill.

The sheer quantity of clubs is one reason. Industry spokesmen estimate that Southern California has 1,700 facilities offering everything from free towels to free parking in addition to fitness equipment.

While there are a lot of clubs, a rash of closures in recent years and an abundance of hype have heightened shoppers' anxieties. It isn't easy to know what to make of 88-cent trial workouts, two-for-one memberships and last-chance-to-get-fit ads.

So what should you look for in a health club?

Definitely more than just who hangs out at the juice bar.

Here are some tips.

1. Be Fussy

Los Angeles seems to offer something for everyone.

If working up a sweat with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, Magic Johnson or Princess Stephanie of Monaco would help raise your heartbeat, Sports Club/LA, touted as the Taj Mahal of fitness facilities when it opened last year, may be just the ticket, although an expensive one.

With 18 exercise classes a day plus basketball, tennis, squash, weight training and banks of treadmills, exercise bikes and other cardiovascular equipment, it seems no fitness route lies unexplored at the mammoth West Los Angeles facility.

If no-frills weight training is more your bag, you may prefer a place like Flex-It Gym in Westminster, where full-color posters of body-building champions adorn the walls and the clinking of weights can drown out the background music. "You go to some gyms and everyone has on perfume," said Luther Ivery, a U.S. Secret Service agent who wore tattered gray sweats during a recent workout there. "People come here to train. You don't see a lot of fashion."

But if your job or social life keep you on the road, your best bet might be membership in a chain like Nautilus Aerobics Plus, Holiday Spa or Sports Connection. Each has multiple locations and reciprocal agreements with other clubs in its chain.

2. Know What You Want

Despite the variety, there are some common denominators, an informal Times poll of 15 area facilities shows.

EQUIPMENT: At most gyms, weight-training machines and exercise bikes are standard equipment. All had some weight-training equipment such as Nautilus, Paramount or Universal machines for upper- and lower-body toning and strengthening, and 13 had exercise bikes. Some also featured rowers, climbers (Versa Climber or Stairmaster) and treadmills.

AEROBICS: Except at body-building gyms, aerobic exercise classes are another staple. Larger clubs tend to offer more classes and more specialized offerings such as maternity, low-impact, senior citizen and "fat-burner" classes that combine low- and high-impact work.

HOURS: Hours of operation vary widely. Chains seem to keep longer hours than smaller, independent clubs. On weekdays, for example, the Nautilus Aerobics Plus in downtown Los Angeles is open until midnight, while the Jane Fonda Workout in Beverly Hills closes by 10 p.m.

INSTRUCTORS: At the clubs polled, most exercise instructors and some weight-room instructors are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, although the California Civil Code does not require it. In addition, many aerobics instructors are certified by such organizations as the Aerobics and Fitness Assn. of America or the International Dance-Exercise Assn.

At a few clubs, instructors must have degrees in exercise physiology or physical education and/or meet strict continuing education requirements as conditions of employment.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Membership ceilings are rare. Only four of the 15 clubs claim to limit membership. But officials at other facilities say they watch usage patterns closely and add instructors or equipment when crowding occurs.

Child care during workouts is also rare. Only two of the 15 clubs offered it, and both charged an extra fee.

Amenities run the gamut, from free towels and free parking to steam rooms and whirlpools, massage, juice bars, parties, health seminars and referrals to specialists such as nutritionists and chiropractors. Some facilities sell nutritional supplements, exercise gear and protein drinks. And at Sports Club/LA, members can drop off their car for washing and waxing while they work out.

COST: Not surprisingly, fees vary tremendously. Among the 15 clubs polled that charge by the month, Nautilus Aerobics Plus is least expensive with an enrollment fee of $49 and a monthly charge of $14. At the other end of the spectrum is Sports Club/LA, which charges $125 a month for executive membership plus an initiation fee of $1,650.

Some facilities charge on a per-workout basis and offer discounts for a series. At the Jane Fonda Workout, for example, each class costs $8, but the charge for one month of unlimited aerobics classes is $90. At Studio Elance in Los Angeles, each class is $25, but the charge for 15 classes taken within three months is $270.

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