Hard body, hard sell

Joining a fitness club in the new year may be more than you bargained for

It's that time of year again. Time to purge after the holiday binge. Even formalize it with a New Year's resolution. You vow to rid yourself of excess pounds and inches by joining a fitness club. You're not alone. Thousands of bulbous DFW boomers and slackers will be signing on the dotted line to the tune of $42 million in January alone.

"Our business quadruples at this time of the year," says Scott Conley, general manager of Plano's 24 Hour Fitness. Just as statistically predictable, however, is the fact that a noticeable drop in membership will occur within a few months after the hard truths about diet, deprivation, and determination set in. Small wonder local clubs want that lifelong commitment now.

You, on the other hand, would like to find out how much it costs to join just for a couple of months. Just in time to buff up for spring.

You go to Bally's Total Fitness and ask the receptionist for their rates. Here's where you get the first hint that things are not as simple as you might think.

"I can't tell you that," she says. "You have to meet with one of our fitness representatives, but first, I'm going to have to ask you to fill this out." She produces a questionnaire about your habits and lifestyle, insists you fill it out: Does your job keep you inactive, require long hours, create enough stress to bend metal? Do you eat late at night, saturated fats, like a suckling pig? Do you walk or jog, ride bikes, sink to the bottom of the pool like a lead weight?

You decide to fill out the form--you can use the exercise. But from the safety of the lobby area, you watch the sweating masses inside, pedaling, rowing, running hard toward Bally's ideal state of Total Fitness. Could you be one of them? Part of the rhythm of Bally life? You chew the end of your pencil, twirl your hair, fidget while waiting.

A few minutes later, a 6-foot hunked-up personal trainer finds you cowering behind your clipboard, now filled with all manner of incriminating evidence of your unhealthy lifestyle. He reaches out with a meaty hand. "I'm Shane." He smiles a healthy Bally smile. He's a walking advertisement for either the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise or a regular regimen of steroids--so you follow him.

There's no fooling around, no tours of the facilities, no pumped-up weight sessions to get your metabolism off slow burn. Shane means business and sits you down in a small, brightly lit office reminiscent of a police interrogation room. Covering the walls are charts and posters designed to steer you away from your wrong ways and lead you down the straight and narrow path of the physically fit. Who would dare say no to the chance to be like the woman on that box of nutritional supplement he touts?

Tan, trim, cut, she wraps a measuring tape easily around her slight waist, the obvious result of consuming Bally's BTrim for Women, an integral part of the Bally way of life. In the war against fat, this is the front line, and Shane is about to make you the next recruit.

He tempts you with the gym's offerings, strange and wonderful high-tech body machines that massage the muscles, sculpt the torso, rip the abdominals. And he sounds like the voice-over for an infomercial.

"At Bally's, you can meet with a personal trainer, monitor your body-fat percentage, and develop a workout routine," he says. "With the help of our nutritional products, you, too, can reach your fitness goals in no time."

Fitness goals? You didn't know you had fitness goals. You look at the Bally's nutritional product line: the boxes of BTrim, BLean, vitamins, and cans of Creatine Monohydrate. You think of where you've heard that name. You remember: Creatine is the performance-boosting concoction used by professional athletes. You look down at your own body, its utter lack of Olympic potential. You look through the glass window at the throngs of converts already fighting for leaner, svelter selves. And you begin to fidget. You twirl your hair. Your leg shakes nervously. You move uncomfortably in the chair.

Then Shane delivers the sobering blow: You can have all this--the machines, the nutritional supplements, the to-die-for body--all for just $250 down and $49 a month for the next three years. But you have to act now. Supplies are limited.

What? On an intern's salary? When you can run around the block for free? Your look of surprise brings about some haggling. OK, only $200 down.

You feel pressed, a bit claustrophobic. You tell Shane maybe you're not Bally's material after all. Maybe you'd be happier not knowing how much of you is body fat or having a personal trainer prod you along your newly acquired fitness goal.

Shane gives you one of his "that's nonsense" looks and drops the price another 50 bucks. But you want out, try to get up, long for the comfort of your couch. You tell Shane you'll think about it, will come back another day.

Again, you're a fool to think it's that simple. You are in the belly of the whale (though one with only 8 percent body fat), and Shane is not about to let you leave without some commitment to the Bally's ideal of Total Fitness.

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