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Men, Keep Out!

Are female-only clubs good for women?

WebMD Feature

May 29, 2000 -- When she'd tried two different health clubs in Anchorage, Alaska, Joan Pirone never quite felt comfortable working out. She worried about wearing the right clothes and felt too intimidated to venture into the free-weight room. "I was afraid of making a fool of myself," says Pirone, 60. "All these guys are pumping 250 pounds, and there isn't even a 4-pound dumbbell for me to pick up. How are you supposed to feel?"

Three years later, Pirone feels so confident with free weights that she offers technique tips to her fellow club members. She uses 20-pound dumbbells for her bicep curls, and never worries whether her jog-bra is too tight or her shorts properly stylish. The difference: Pirone has switched to Women's Nautilus, one of two women-only health clubs in Anchorage.

"At coed clubs you feel like you're on TV, like the men are constantly looking at you," she says. "But our club is so supportive. I have achieved a lot more here than I ever would have at the other clubs."

Pirone isn't the only diehard fan of women's fitness clubs. Despite a handful of lawsuits claiming that these clubs illegally discriminate against men, the women-only health club industry appears to be thriving. Nationwide, there are about 1,250 clubs that cater solely to women or offer a women-only workout area. That number is on the rise, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

Some women join these clubs because their religious beliefs forbid them to show skin in front of the opposite sex; others have suffered abuse by men and feel threatened working out in their presence. However, most choose women-only clubs simply because they feel self-conscious exercising in a coed environment.

"Some women enjoy the attention from men, but some of us are intimidated by it," Pirone says. "I'm glad I have the choice of going to a women-only gym."

Pirone's choice was briefly threatened earlier this year, when -- in response to a complaint from a disgruntled man -- the Alaska Human Rights Commission tried to ban single-sex health clubs. Ultimately, the state legislature passed a bill allowing gender discrimination in fitness clubs; the new law takes effect in June. The same battles have been fought in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In both cases, the legislatures voted to protect single-sex clubs.

That's how it should be, says Jay Ablondi, IHRSA's director of government relations. "We're trying to get more people to exercise," Ablondi says. "Some women are so uncomfortable exercising in front of men that, if that's their only choice, they won't exercise at all."

Psychologist Robert Tanenbaum came to the same conclusion in 1998 when he surveyed 500 members of women-only gyms and interviewed 100 others, in preparation for testimony before the Massachusetts statehouse. "Almost unanimously, these women said they would leave their club and would have to return to at-home exercise," Tanenbaum says, adding that most of the women had already failed to maintain a workout program at home. "A lot of these women had been overweight and were in transition with appearance."

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