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Sauna Closings Anger Fitness Buffs

Fitness: Members protest the YMCA's plan to close steam rooms citywide. Health risks cited.


Los Angeles fitness buffs were steaming Friday over the sudden shutdown of saunas at workout centers operated by the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles.

All saunas and steam rooms were ordered permanently shuttered Tuesday by YMCA officials. The closure followed a June 4 fire that authorities say began in a sauna and caused $1 million in damage to the Westchester YMCA.

But YMCA administrators claim that heath issues--not fire-safety concerns--prompted the closure order.

"For some time now, we have had serious concerns about the health risks," said Larry M. Rosen, president of Los Angeles YMCAs. "Furthermore, YMCAs are aware of no credible support in the realms of science or health for the use of saunas and steam rooms."

That explanation was raising the stress levels of YMCA members who say they enjoyed the calming and cleansing effect of relaxing in superheated saunas after a workout or a hard day of work.

Those who use saunas and steam rooms contend that a short stint in the 104-degree heat relaxes muscles, increases energy, improves skin tone and even enhances memory and concentration.

They are not recommended for pregnant women or those with high blood pressure or heart disease, however. And YMCA officials said there is no way to ensure the guidelines are followed.

"From my standpoint, it's both a stretching heat applied to tired muscles and a cleansing of impurities through sweating," said sauna and steam room user Nick Press, an investment banker from Glendale who is a member of the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA, which is near his Los Angeles high-rise office.

"People are grumbling that they are just using the fire as an excuse to close these. They haven't spent money keeping them up. You get the feeling they were just looking for a way to shut it down."

Some YMCA members say they were told that the saunas and steam rooms are considered a liability in the post-Sept. 11 climate where insurance costs have gone up.

Others worry that commercial fitness centers, which sometimes look to the YMCA as a trend-setter as well as competitor, might also begin shutting steam rooms.

YMCA officials said Friday that while insurance costs have increased, that was not an issue in the shutdown. The Westchester fire, which closed the branch indefinitely, was apparently caused when an outside cleaning crew left a floor mat on a sauna heating element, officials said.

"We're going to lose a lot of members and goodwill, but this is something we had to do," Rosen said. Saunas will be closed at YMCAs in Hollywood, the Westside, Downey, Torrance, South-Central and San Pedro as well as downtown and Westchester, he said. "We're concerned about the health hazards these represent."

Feeling the heat, officials are urging YMCA staff members to "avoid wading into a debate" with angry sauna supporters, as J.C. Holt Jr., executive director of the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA, put it. He said the Y was prepared to refund membership fees to disgruntled members and "take any necessary fiscal step to weather any outcome."

But in terms of a long-term backlash, Holt indicated he isn't sweating it.

"Traditionally, issues of this nature will remain active for about 30 days ... about the length of time I have on the books for vacation," he joked in a memo to staff members.

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