WHEN IT comes to health clubs, do you prefer the enormous, multilevel variety where you can retain your anonymity even after years of blood, sweat and towels, or do you opt for the small mom-and-pop "Cheers"-type gym where everybody knows your name?

A friend says she'll only join the behemoth kind because "I don't want to talk to anyone who sees the kind of grotesque faces I make in there unless I'm sleeping with them. And even then, I'm kind of self-conscious." A tad too much information, but I understand her point. Others say the larger gyms are better for just getting in there, getting the job done and going home. Got it.

But for me, the punier of the pair also offers a second, indisputable health benefit: human contact.


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I belong to just such a no-frills gym in the Valley -- one level, with Lilliputian locker rooms dividing the unfussy aerobic and weight resistance stations. No major amenities, unless you consider the motion-detecting paper towel dispensers as such, especially on those days when they're actually working.

As exercise-averse as I am, I'm always there three mornings a week, and it's at least partly to swap tidings and bon mots with the likes of: Jay, a gregarious actor-writer with a loud, infectious laugh who gabs about his TV series roles, which began with "The Eddie Cantor Show" in the late '50s and ended with "Gunsmoke"; or Ted, a supportive, friendly retiree who might begin a conversation with, "You know who really doesn't get enough credit for her acting talent? -- Irene Dunne."

And then, in another corner, are three energetic women -- all named Patty -- who hang out together, laughing and chatting it up with two other women -- both named Debby. It's an exclusive club that can only be entered, apparently, by having one of two names. (I call the former three "The All Beef Patties," which occasionally amuses them.)

Several couples come to the gym to work out together, like the outgoing Jeff and Cat, whose hard-fought battle to keep a Whole Foods Market out of their neighborhood seemed a bit counterproductive to maintaining a healthful lifestyle. But OK, OK, the traffic. And there's always Trader Joe's.

There are also several fortysomething guys (myself included) who opine about popular culture, slippery stock prices, occasional joint pain, wives, girlfriends and women we'd like to have as either. One of them, Mark, a computer systems analyst, has become a great friend, a frequent Vegas buddy and fellow dragon roll junkie.

But my sweetest small-gym acquaintance has to be a nearly deaf woman, Liz, who asked if I wanted to see her sing in sign language. I said yes, and what followed -- Celine Dion's "The Power of Love" -- brought a bean-sized tear to my eye.

And as I've read in these very pages, emotional release is a health tonic made in heaven.

Actor-writer Dan Frischman has been a regular on two TV series. His website is www.danfrischman.com.