Thursday, December 17, 2009

Shopping for Gyms

In my ongoing quest to spend ever more money in pursuit of fitness and well-being, I joined a gym last week. The undertaking to unite oneself with a gym in holy fitrimony is a serious commitment, and not one to be approached lightly. In the end, though, it's often about the gut over the head.

I did my research with my usual diligence, that is to say, I sat in the Big Poofy Chair and used the internet. At least at first. I read reviews of about five health clubs on Yelp, CitySearch, and a other places where people spout off. Unfortunately, people tend to spout off a lot more frequently about restaurants and hair salons than they do about gyms. Still, I was able to rule out three options. The YMCA, which would have been my first choice because of its non-profitness and inclusivity, was out. Indoor pool, nasty old building, semi-funky part of town. Alhambra - not close enough, not interesting enough. Capitol - sounded spendy and a bit meat-market-y.

The two front-runners that emerged were the Natomas Racquet Club, which is about two miles from my house, and California Family Fitness, about four miles away. Natomas had several advantages: proximity to the house and no need for freeways; a nice big lap pool; and a Masters swimming program that could help me boost my aquatic prowess to previously unheard-of levels. CFF reviewers cited its brand-spankin' newness, uncrowded pool, uncrowded every kind of equipment imaginable, and schweet locker rooms.

I set out on a Saturday afternoon at about 4:30 to do field research. Natomas Racquet Club didn’t have anyone available to talk to me about membership or take me on a tour of the facilities, nor would the guy at the desk let me work out on a trial basis. Strike one. He did let me wander around on my own, and I saw the usual collection of equipment, fitness studio, racquetball court and so on. The pool was indeed nice and big, and the grounds of the club sported lawns and trees and picnic tables. But the locker room was kind of small, the showers no nicer than my old YMCA in Mountain View, and my overall impression was that the place was in need of renovation and, as the name implied, heavily focused on the tennis set.

A couple of exits up the freeway I found CFF looming over the strip malls, trimmed with neon and looking unappealing, frankly. But there was easy parking and the friendly desk folks told me that Larry would be right with me to show me around and talk about membership. I lounged on the leather couch by the snack bar and watched the flat screen TV as I waited. Not bad, I thought.

The whole place was sparkling clean, and despite its name, completely devoid of children (a plus). Acres of cardio and weight machines, free weights, exercise balls, and mats covered most of two floors. The indoor cycling studio held 50 bikes, and the aerobics room was massive. The outdoor lap pool was smaller than NRC’s (6 lanes vs. 8), but it was totally empty. There was also an indoor aqua aerobics and general use pool, which meant that the lap pool was all laps, all the time. A huge plus. The Jacuzzi looked big and hot, with reasonably powerful jets. Larry sent me in to tour the locker room, and there my decision was essentially made.

The real estate crowd says that bathrooms sell houses, and CFF had clearly transferred this adage to the gym. Glass tile accents in the showers, faux burlwood finished lockers with electronic keypad locks, flat panel TVs in the locker bays, modern looking sinks, and new paint and fixtures everywhere. It looked like HGTV had swept through and done a makeover.

I sat down with Larry and pretended to negotiate, and took a few days to “think about it,” but I was hooked. Even though CFF might be a little tough to get to at rush hour and I have to provide my own towels, I smile every time I look at those glass tile accents in the shower.

I’ve been to the pool a few times since that initial tour, and I’m still in the honeymoon stage. Happy to be in the water, happy to be a person who belongs to the gym, happy with the electronic locker technology.

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