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L.A. at Large

Gym Rats Turn On Power During Off-Peak Hours


The Glute Master, Ab Crunch and 45-Degree Donkey Calf machines sit idle. In fact, most of the 122 pieces of workout equipment at the 24-Hour Fitness in Glendale are not in use at 2:30 a.m. On a recent Friday, in a room where a sign reads "maximum occupancy 147 persons," a mere three people are exercising, each speed-walking their way toward physical perfection.

"I can't sleep, so I come into the gym," says a slightly moist Helen Sundling, 54, 14 minutes into her hourlong late-night workout on the treadmill and exercise cycle.

A self-declared insomniac, Sundling is one of thousands of problem sleepers, night owls and workers with nontraditional hours who go to the gym after midnight, when there's never a fight to get on a machine.

"I just don't care for working out during the day because it's too crowded. This is a better time," says Sundling, who wears pink and blue weights on each wrist. She has been exercising in the wee hours for three years and comes to the gym five times a week.

Though 24-Hour Fitness did not pioneer the concept of the all-hours gym, the San Francisco-based chain, which was launched in 1995 and now has 430 locations worldwide, has certainly popularized the idea, so much so that the marketing shtick has been adopted by more and more fitness clubs to attract new members in a competitive market.

Few gym-goers, however, actually take advantage of the extended hours.

"People will join these 24-hour gyms and never go between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. They join because they think they will have the freedom to work out whenever they want," says Brian Zola, project manager for Groove Fitness, an all-hours gym on La Brea Avenue that also has live deejays in the evenings.

At 2:45 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Michael Gould, the 34-year-old receptionist at Groove, is watching the Harrison Ford movie "Random Hearts" while a single gym member bench-presses.

"Usually from 1 to 4 a.m., there's nobody. Just me and my thoughts," Gould says, sounding a little like the Maytag repairman.

In addition to watching movies in his downtime on the job, he sips Thermo Speed, a sports energy drink, and reads scripts for his other part-time job.

Across the street from Groove, Rudy Rodriguez works the graveyard shift at the round-the-clock Hollywood Gym. He sips a 1,070-calorie energy drink and sometimes lifts weights to help time go by. In the month he's had this job, he says, he's never seen more than eight people during a single night. And that's including the nonmembers who wander in to ask if they can use the bathroom.

Joe Somberg, 34, is one of the gym's few late-night regulars.

"You can tan all night," says Somberg, who likes working out when most everyone else is sleeping because it accommodates his work schedule.

At 1 a.m., after a shift waiting tables at Marie Callender's on Wilshire Boulevard, he stops by the club for a quick zap under the ultraviolet lights and a trot on the treadmill.

"We don't make a whole lot of money in the middle of the night. The main reason we have it is the service," admits Tobe Baad, Hollywood Gym's general manager. The club opened nine years ago and was one of the first all-hours gyms in California.

"There are two primary reasons why [people] feel they can't make a commitment to get and stay involved in a fitness program. Time . . . and money," says Craig Pepin-Donat, executive vice president of sales and marketing for 24-Hour Fitness Worldwide. "We've taken those two excuses out of the decision-making process."

Still, fewer than 10% of 24-Hour's members go to the gym between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., he says. The majority go before work--between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.--or after--between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Steve Saunders, 44, is one of the Glendale club's regular night owls. At 3:15 a.m., with a weight belt slung over his right shoulder and wearing gloves to protect his hands, he heads for the weight room. A jack-of-all-trades entertainer, he likes to write until the middle of the night and then come to the gym where he can "get so worn out that I'm ready for a good morning's sleep." Saunders says he typically goes to bed at 5 a.m. and wakes up "at the crack of noon."

Dorothy Capers, a 56-year-old nurse, has been going to Bally's in Hawthorne for the past year. Bally's, the largest chain in North America, with 385 outlets, has begun extending hours at some of its clubs in the last few years, usually to 24 hours Monday through Thursday.

Capers ends her hospital shift around midnight and heads straight to the gym. If she didn't work out at night, she says, she'd be eating in front of the television.

By about 1:15 a.m. on a recent visit, she is 45 minutes and 462 calories into the 700 she hopes to burn.

"I'm trying to lose some weight--get rid of this," she says, clutching her upper arm. "Get rid of this," she adds, gripping her thigh as she moves her legs back and forth on the Elliptical machine and listens to D'Angelo on her portable cassette player.

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