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Jan. 22, 2001 -- Fitness is phat. Whether Americans are sweating for a svelte, sexy body, or just trying to lose the grip on their love handles, health clubs and memberships to them are booming in the United States.

In the last year, the number of health clubs in America has grown 5% to 15,910, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association's 2000 Trend Report. The report also found that over the past decade, club memberships have increased by one-third to approximately 30 million.

Yet how much do you know about the standards followed by your gym to ensure its equipment is safe and in good working order?

"I don't know of any equipment standards, per se," says Mike May, director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group. "It's the level of competition for members that keeps health clubs on top of their equipment. If your standards fall, so will your membership numbers. So it's in your own selfish best interest to keep them up to speed and running smoothly."

In all her years of training, physical therapist Deb Zlotnick, 40, says she's never really worried whether the equipment she was using was regularly maintained and safe. Probably like many health club members, she assumed there was a list of standards and codes enforced by a local, state, or federal agency. She was wrong. "It surprises me that they leave it up to the honor code," she says.

A large percentage of those lifting and pushing themselves into shape are baby-boomers like Zlotnick, who lives with her husband and daughter just outside Philadelphia. She's been a member of several health clubs during the past 19 years. "It makes me feel good, and I feel like I'm doing something for myself," she says, crediting her dedication to her father, who at 66 still works out four days a week.

May says manufacturers know it's in their best interest to make sturdy, reliable machines, because in the tightly knit world of fitness clubs, it doesn't take long for word to spread about a faulty piece of equipment.

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