Hard body, hard sell

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.

He says he'd like to introduce you to his boss, Shane. At least you think that's his name. Like the first Shane, this Shane is tall, blond, and ripped. He enters the room, senses you're wavering, and pins you back down to your seat with his steely blue eyes and matching grin. He closes the door behind him.

This is an unfair match--you feel like you're being held hostage by a couple of Aryan brothers. Shane reinforces what Shane has been telling you: nutritional supplements, weight machines, changing your evil ways. He drops the down payment another 50 bucks. You fidget. You just want to go home. You get up to leave and say you want to come back another day. The two Shanes don't believe you. It's as though they know what you're thinking. They tell you to relax. You try to stop fidgeting.

That jogs a memory of something you read the other day. About a new study from the Mayo Clinic that says that people who fidget a lot may be burning excess calories by unconsciously increasing the normal movements of everyday life. The two Shanes' hard sell might be causing you to lose weight right there. Nevertheless, you get up to leave, promising to return.

"Ninety-nine percent of people who say that never come back," says the second Shane.

You tell him you already exercise. Three times a week. At your age, you'd be wasting your time any more than that.

"You're getting older. You need more now, don't you?" he gently coaxes.
He's right. You sit back down. But you still want to leave.
"You aren't 18 anymore, and your body's not the same," he says.

You argue that you can't afford it, and he argues back, pointing to a chart showing how much the average woman spends on cosmetics, junk food, and entertainment every month.

You wonder what kind of misogynist would make up a chart like that.
"Isn't your health worth at least as much?" he asks.
Once again, you have to admit he's right. The Shane tag-team is wearing you down. You're getting tired. Sleepy. Ready to sign. Then you look through the glass, at the frenzied hoards who are still jogging on treadmills and cycling in place. Yet they look worried, afraid. Perhaps it's the ironclad 3-year contract they will have to abide by or risk getting sued in the new millennium. That look summons your courage.

You tell the two Shanes with as much defiance as you can muster that you are just not comfortable doing this right now. Your leg still shakes nervously. You twirl your hair.

"Just $5 down, then," he says. "Put $5 down, and then you'll come back," says the second Shane.

You stand up to leave. You're stronger than they are. But you decide you will come back, if just to hear their sales pitch again.

As fidgety as it makes you, you figure it's a great way to lose weight.

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