Unbearable Likeness of Being Out of Shape

Times Staff Writer

There are more than 50 health clubs in the San Fernando Valley with a total membership of about 150,000. The clubs advertise “The Club With Everything,” “A Way of Life” and “Forever Young.” Roughly nine out of 10 people who hold memberships visit their health clubs twice a month or less.

I have a dream. In it, I’m standing in front of a mirror and Billy Casper, the once-great golfer who now looks like a sand trap with legs, is staring back at me.

The first time, I wake up and curse the brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce that I slurped away at for 20 minutes before going to bed that night.

When the dream occurs a second time in the same week, I panic and join a health club.



At last check, I have joined nine health clubs in the past five years. The average cost was about $300. The average number of times I visited each of them was five, but that number is padded by the fact that more than a dozen times I left my filthy socks in a locker and returned for them later, which I count as separate visits.

I vowed never to join another health club.

But this time, Billy Casper wouldn’t leave me alone. “Keep eating,” he’d yell in my dream, “and you too will have a waistline larger than the coastline of Oahu.”


And so I checked out many of the more than 60 health clubs in the Valley area and joined health club No. 10.

Much was the same as the other nine clubs I had joined.

For starters, the employee who gives you the tour of the building has arms the size of 20-year-old eucalyptus trees. I have absolutely no proof whatsoever that these guys with the massive arms use steroids, but I once watched one of them pull a door open from the hinged side and then giggle at his error.

The tour usually begins in the room with all the machines. The next five minutes or so are always a jumble of bizarre words and names for things that look like they might fly or for body parts that you had no idea you even had.

“These are Nautilus carvascilopers . They’re for the wumpotozoids in your middle back,” the tour guide mumbles. “And this is water-filled, vacuum-packed resistance Gheinrapherizer , which expands the phonotny rambezius to 11 times its normal size. If you do this five times a week for a year, none of your socks will fit over your ankles.”

He guides you over to the upper-leg machines. There, a middle-aged man is bellowing in pain as he raises 100 pounds over and over again with his knee. You’ve never done this exercise, but you know it hurts, and you know that 10 years from now a doctor is going to examine this guy’s knees and ask, “Was anyone killed?”

You make a mental note never to try this machine. If you want to exhaust the muscles in your legs, you say to yourself, you will go stand in line at any bank in the Valley on a Friday afternoon.

Next stop on the Tour de Grunt is the line of rowing machines. The guide sits you down, adjusts a few things and you’re off, skimming across the carpeted pond, arms and shoulders and legs pumping furiously. This seems like a good exercise for about 30 seconds. Then your rear end really starts to hurt. The pain gets worse and worse. You quickly realize that you are chafing yourself to death.


“Work on this for about 20 minutes at first,” says Polar Bear Arms. “The next day, though, you’ll be sore.”

He means your arm, shoulder and leg muscles will be sore. Your rear end won’t be sore because most of it will still be in the health club in microscopic, epidermal layers. You’ll be able to walk around without clothes on and your neighbors will think you’re wearing red Bermuda shorts.

Next, you are led to the free-weight room, where stacks and stacks of black metal plates are being methodically pumped up and down and back and forth around and around by half a dozen real thick guys who either shave their entire bodies or should.

“This is for the more advanced lifter,” the guide says.


The room appears to be filled with guys who have barely advanced past the walking upright stage. You think you could send the whole room into absolute chaos by rolling a wheel across it or lighting a match.

Soon, you are led into the locker room and shown the showers and lockers and sinks and things.

And then you are shown the sauna.


Now I hope nobody takes this personally, but my idea of a good time is not sitting naked in a small room with a bunch of hairy and sweaty men after someone has turned the thermostat to the setting marked, “Guatemala. August.”

But for $300, perhaps this time I could get to like it.