New York Times
June 1, 2006
Physical Fitness
Don't Hit on Me, Mr. Goodbody

WOW, David Atencio thought the first time he entered 24 Hour Fitness, a gym in San Leandro, Calif., in the early 1980's. Look at this! Look at that!

The object of Mr. Atencio's wonder was not the high-tech elliptical trainer or the juice bar — neither existed yet. Instead Mr. Atencio, then in his 20's, was focused on something that had an even greater impact on the fitness industry: women.

"Man, did you see that girl?" Mr. Atencio recalls telling his friends as they scouted for potential dates.

"You met people, you dated people," he recalled wistfully. "It felt more like a nightclub. There was a lot of endorphins kicking off, a lot of wildness in the first couple years. Were women at my beck and call? Yes — I taught aerobics!"

But these days, Mr. Atencio, now 42 and a regional director of sales for 24 Hour Fitness in Houston, is more likely to be checking his heart rate than checking out a member of the opposite sex. And not just because he's married.

When men and women first began working out together in the late 70's and early 80's, the atmosphere at many gyms was as sexually charged as a John Travolta-era disco: beefy men and lithe women pumped iron, Jazzercised and gave each other the eye.

Rolling Stone magazine picked up on the trend in 1983 with "Looking for Mr. Goodbody," a cover story which proclaimed health clubs to be "The New Singles' Bars."

The article served as the springboard for the cheesy 1985 movie "Perfect," in which the still-gyrating Mr. Travolta was cast as a muscle-bound investigative reporter wooing a buff aerobics instructor played by Jamie Lee Curtis. For many people who joined gyms in those days, getting healthy was an afterthought. But now, trainers, gymgoers and fitness industry experts say, expectations have reversed. Health is often the key motivator, and, with a few exceptions, the idea of the gym as a pick-up spot is about as passé as neon pink leg warmers.

"The first time people came into a club, they were coming to meet people," Mr. Atencio said. "Today it's more about getting fit."

Molly Fox, an early gymgoer who started one of New York's first aerobics studios and who is now group fitness manager for the Equinox club in San Mateo, Calif., witnessed the change. On a gym floor, "you could just feel the come-on," she said. "Now, certainly somebody might look at somebody, but it doesn't have that vibe."

That gyms have evolved into a more professional, largely flirt-free zone has as much to do with demographics, time management and the advent of the iPod as it does with spandex and sexual politics.

In the early days, the confident and the taut frequented gyms, not the saggy masses. "It was 6 or 8 percent of the population who went, people who were comfortable with their bodies, not grossly out of shape," said Rick Caro, who co-owned a handful of gyms in the Northeast in the 70's and 80's.

"It was all about looking sexually attractive," said Sandy Coffman, a fitness consultant in Bradenton, Fla.

And gym bunnies, both male and female, dressed to accentuate their appeal (or so they thought).

"Jane Fonda made it O.K. for us to exercise almost naked in public," Ms. Fox said. "There was a whole sexual revealment — a thong leotard with a flesh-colored tight. It was like, butt cheek, hello! When I look back on it now, it looks like an exotic dancer outfit."

Men liked to flaunt their assets, too. In "Perfect," Mr. Travolta wears crotch-hugging short shorts, and he's not afraid of the hip thrust.

By and large, gym members today aren't the sleek 20-somethings of a generation ago. People aged 35 to 54 account for a third of all health club members, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a trade group. The over-55 crowd makes up another quarter and is the fastest growing segment of gymgoers.

"You take the 50-, 55-, 60-year-old person, they're not going to be checking out the scene the same way they did in the 1970's," Ms. Coffman, who is 64, said.

Today's exercisers are also more likely to be hitting the treadmill on the advice of a doctor, or to get rid of a lower-belly bulge, rather than to perfect their preternaturally tight abs.

"There used to be a feeling that you had to be fit before you even joined a gym," said Julie Main, the president of the Santa Barbara Athletic Club in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she has worked for more than 18 years. "Now when you look at the people in the weight room or even our cardiovascular room, they're not the hard bodies that you see in the magazines."

With a more diverse, older membership — 41.3 million people belong to health clubs, compared with 17.3 million in 1987 — the focus has turned to less sexy concerns: lowering cholesterol levels, maintaining heart health, slimming down.

"Everybody is far more focused on living a healthier lifestyle," Ms. Coffman said. "Fitness right now is all about the word wellness."

Even as people become more serious about increasing their physical fitness, they are spending less time at the gym, a consequence of overscheduling. "You would talk to people in the 80's, and they were proud of the fact that they were spending two-and-a-half, three hours in the gym," said Robert Caravetta, a personal trainer in New York. "You rarely see that anymore."

Today's members generally spend 45 to 90 minutes, and even less time at express workout facilities, said Rosemary Lavery, a spokeswoman for the sports club association.

Instead of dropping by the health club for an evening's worth of chatting up other members, interrupted by bouts of exercise, people do what they have to do and leave. Working out used to be a leisure activity; now it's a personal responsibility, like flossing — which is pretty much the antithesis of flirty fun.

There is also the influence of entertainment technology: rows of television sets and MP3 players. With everyone in a headset bubble or busy with a trainer, there are fewer opportunities to start conversations. "When I have my iPod on, it's definitely a deterrent that says 'Leave me alone. I want to be in my own space,' " said Kerry Brown, 28, a clothing marketer who goes to Clay, a spalike facility in Manhattan.

Ryan Schick, 26, a photo editor who frequents a couple of Equinox gyms in Manhattan, feels the same way. "The gym is my sanctuary," he said. "I don't believe it's appropriate personally for me to hit on people in the gym because I feel like I'm violating that spirit of why I'm there, which is just to mentally veg out and de-stress."

Considering that the gym brings together like-minded individuals, some single members wish the activities included a little more multitasking. "You can find similar people, whether they're in the same income bracket or time schedule or a healthy person," Ms. Brown said. "It's not a bad place to meet someone. It just doesn't happen very much."

A gym can be a good outlet to meet someone "because there's no alcohol involved," said Brooke Temner, 26, a beauty publicist who belongs to a Crunch gym on the East Side of Manhattan. And the environment isn't as threatening as a bar. Still, Ms. Temner has yet to have anyone approach her midworkout.

There are exceptions, chief among them gyms with a large gay membership. "It's such a different vibe than a straighter gym," said Robert Morea, a trainer who works with clients at several Manhattan gyms, including some that attract a gay clientele. "It's much more social."

Which is not to say that most health clubs are completely asexual places, where men and women interact only with the dumbbells.

"If you see some hot guys at the gym, you're going to check them out," said Jennifer Vanlerberghe, 29, who works for a travel company and belongs to the Reebok Sports Club in Manhattan. "But chances are you won't talk to them. You wouldn't be like, 'Um, can you show me how to do a bicep curl?' I would be embarrassed because I should know how to do a bicep curl. And I do."