BODY WATCH : Why the Y? Think Age, Latitude : Forget the rice cakes and swanky outfits. Around here, real men can be themselves.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To be appropriately hip and upwardly mobile in the '90s, you need to pay particular attention to three status symbols:

Your significant other.

Your car.

And your gym.

I know this because all three have been "Seinfeld" episodes.

I've worked hard to stay chic: I'm happily married. I drive a Miata. And I spend my mornings at the gym.

It's not one of those places patronized by people who talk about which "Melrose Place" cast member they are most often compared to. I'm just not that hip.

My workout spot of choice is a perennially unfashionable neighborhood YMCA.

I'd like to pretend that I go for altruistic reasons, since the Y is known for its charity work. Or that I go because it's significantly cheaper than trendier, better-known gyms. Unfortunately, the real reasons have to do with the three As: age, attitude and appearance.

You're Not Getting Older

There's something to be said for a place where I can be in my mid-30s and still be one of the youngest people in the Nautilus room. By half. During my early morning workouts, the average age of my fellow athletes hovers somewhere between grandparent and George Burns. At some fancy health club, guys show off their biceps. Here, they swap viewings of quadruple-bypass scars.

One particular advantage to this age difference is the sneak preview. Seeing these folks trudge naked around the locker room gives me a pretty good idea of how I'm going to look in about 30 years--which also gives me incentive to keep working out for the next 30 years.

But the best thing about exercising in the only place this side of Palm Beach where I'm still called "young man" is the way it appeals to my competitive side. As a kid, I was horrible at sports. I tried hard but came in dead last in every high school track meet. The towel boy for the chess team seemed to have a better 800-meter time.

At the Y, though, I can finally get the ego boost that comes from being among the fastest, the toughest, the strongest.

Recently, after I'd finished doing 10 pullups, I turned around to find a fellow Y member twice my age and girth applauding me.

"Well done," he said before heading off to the steam room. (If this had been a non-Y, my face would have appeared in the locker room on a Least Wanted poster for doing only 10 pullups.)

Sure it's kind of pathetic, but I was thrilled at the recognition. If I ever get my bench press above 200, I'm expecting a "wave" cheer.

Attitude, Baby

The mood of the Y was captured perfectly a few months ago while I was grunting my way toward the end of a set of sit-ups. A Y-mate stretching next to me groaned: "That's the problem with all this. For exercise to do any good, you can never stop."

This grudging acceptance of working out is the YMCA workout attitude: Exercise isn't something you enjoy, it's something you endure.

And nothing makes a workout go smoother than sweating alongside others who will later go out for a big bacon-and-pancake breakfast.

At a slick health club, on the other hand, people seem be having a good time. They always look so happy about getting up at 6 a.m. to run a dozen miles and aerobicize for hours. It's disgusting--to say nothing of those rice cakes they chow down on afterward.

Yet, that's what these trendy gyms are for. They're like singles bars with treadmills and a stricter dress code. They're not there for you, but more for everyone else--to be on display and admired by all. Or to be interrupted on the StairMaster by the jerk who asks, "Whatcha reading?"

From that, an oppressive, competitive attitude is born.

Since all eyes are upon you, you feel pressured to live up to their standards. You work harder to keep up. Which means more time at the gym. Which means more feelings of insecurity.

It's a vicious, stressful cycle, defeating the whole purpose of working out. If you wanted to give up your own sense of self-worth just so you could satisfy the expectations of everyone around you, you wouldn't have gone to the gym. You would have gone into politics.

You Look Marvelous

One of the central theories behind exercising is that it will make you look good. The change is a gradual one, with months going by before you see even the slightest evaporation of fat. So why is it that everybody looks good to begin with at those health clubs?

It's different at the Y. This is where you go when you look like someone who sweats it out to a Siskel and Ebert workout tape. You can go at your own pace free of the "American Gladiators" wanna-bes.

And then there is the swank sportswear adorning the crowd at the clubs. These outfits are so colorful, so tight and so revealing you'd think these exercisers double as dancers in a Vegas lounge show.

All of this contrasts with the deliberately uncool outfits Y denizens wear. There's the official gold T-shirt and blue shorts, which look remarkably similar to the stuff you wore in junior high. Equally popular is my personal choice: the souvenir T-shirt from last year's vacation mismatched with the running shorts permanently out of style and on sale at the Sports Chalet.

Which means working out at the YMCA is kind of like being married. Yeah, married.

It feels comfortable and, because the pressure to dazzle others with your appearance is pretty much over, you could probably wander around in slippers and boxer shorts all day without attracting attention.

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