Bracing for the attack of the gym 'newbies'

Times Staff Writer

Jackie Waltuch has been going to Bally Total Fitness in Studio City long enough -- seven years to be exact -- to know what she's in for this month: the dreaded onslaught of resolution-makers.

"We always joke, 'Oh, God, it's the newbies!' We're like, 'You guys aren't going to be here by March, get out! Leave us our machines and our weights and our parking spaces.' I imagine it's the same at any gym."

Resolutions usually don't kick into gear until Jan. 2 or later, so on the first day of the new year, it was mostly the old guard working up a sweat at various gyms around Southern California. It would be the last uncrowded day for a while, with a new crop of gym-goers expected to infiltrate in coming weeks, some completely unaware of the gym etiquette of wiping off sweat, letting people work in on weight machines and not monopolizing equipment.

Waltuch, 23, has been coming to the Bally Total Fitness in Studio City since she was a teenager. She made these pronouncements about "newbies" only half-seriously -- in the next breath she told how she and her fellow gym rats are happy to show the fumbling uninitiated how to start an elliptical trainer or do a lat pull-down correctly. But still ....

"There's suddenly a line for the machine you want, and you know it's the best one," she said. "There's definitely something in the air."

That something is the appearance of un-worked-out bodies as thousands of men and women crowd into Southern California health clubs to begin what, for some, is ultimately a Sisyphean ritual. They'll work out diligently for a couple of months, slack off and finally stop altogether until starting the process over again next year. During the early part of the year, overall gym turnout is boosted as much as 40% at some clubs, causing crowded classes, lines and frayed nerves before the numbers drop off a few months later.

Willie Cano crouched over a workout bench preparing to lift a hefty dumbbell. A thin sheen of sweat covered his brow. He surveyed the nearly empty room and said, "It's only the first. Wait till tomorrow morning."

But the 42-year-old Cano, who's been a member of this gym for nine years, doesn't plan on bumping into too many new faces. "I come at 4:30 in the morning, before I go to work, and I see the same people," he said. "People who are going to start getting in shape won't be getting up at 4:30 in the morning."

At the 24 Hour Fitness club in West Hollywood, sunlight poured through the windows as a smattering of people -- headphones on, enclosed in their own worlds -- bobbed up and down on stair climbers and treadmills. Jonathan Beck, 36, was nearing the end of his cardio and weight workout, attempting to exorcise the Godiva chocolate cake he had the night before. "The first month, it's crazy," he said of the expected newcomers, "and then it tapers off. But the new people don't bother me. Life's too short to let someone hogging a machine get me upset, so I just go on to something else. There are a lot of people with entitlement issues."

Richard Lapin has a similar laissez-faire attitude: "You can definitely spot them," the 36-year-old said between sets of ab crunches. "They dress very modestly, with baggy clothing, trying to cover up holiday indiscretions. But I'm not one to judge. And I encourage them, I think it's good for them. But it's not too crowded today," he said, looking over the landscape of hard bodies. "I think people are working out their hangovers."

Stay dedicated

Gold's Gym in Redondo Beach was almost empty by afternoon. As families took their post-brunch stroll along the water, 36-year-old Dawn Esser kept up a speedy pace on the treadmill while intently reading a magazine.

"It gets really crowded here at night this time of year," she said. "I only come at night for classes, so I don't have to deal with it. And if I do the treadmill, I come during the day."

Though she doesn't bump into many resolutioners, she did have advice for them: "You have to be dedicated and come at least four times a week if you're really going to be in shape. People who do it two to three times a week -- that's just not enough to keep up your metabolism."

Those who would scoff at a newcomer's presence should know that there are people like 40-year-old Sheila Legette, who refuses to be intimidated by machine or human.

"Once I learn how to operate these machines, I'm good to go," said Legette, who signed up at Bally's that day. "I think everyone here is trying to meet their goal, and we're here to better ourselves. I already took off 40 pounds on my own, and I plan on getting into a bikini for the summer."

As she walked off to find a treadmill, Wood Grigsby entered the club and without hesitation said to the receptionist, "I'm here for my resolution."

That is, specifically, to lose weight and end two years of exercise-free living.

"I'm 45, I'm overweight and I miss working out. I'm in a good place, I'm settled, I feel good, and I just want the rest of me to follow," he said, patting his belly.

Grigsby has already done the preliminary work, ridding his home of fattening foods and replacing them with healthy ones -- and 12 cases of Slim-Fast.

"I'm not worried about the equipment or anything," he said confidently as he was taken to a back room to look over the contract. "It doesn't faze me in the least."

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