Cardio Striptease

Gym Gimmicks

From the WebMD Archives

The soundtrack from 9 ½ Weeks is blaring as a dozen generously endowed women work their glutes and flex their ... uh, abs ... in classic stripper fashion. On cue, they touch the side of their lips and slide their eyes down the length of their bodies. The gym suddenly seems hotter.

Yes, the gym. This is not a dive on the edge of town -- it's the Mission Viejo, Calif., branch of Crunch Fitness, a 22-gym health club chain that's using nontraditional exercise programs to pump up its bottom line.

"I consult with clubs all the time," says Meg Jordan, PhD, RN, editor of American Fitness magazine and author of The Fitness Instinct. "They are looking for ways to bring out the reluctant exerciser, revive the burned-out member, and reinspire the die-hards. Only 20% of the population exercises to any great degree. The clubs say, 'What about that other 80%?'"

Courting the Timid and Jaded

According to Rob Glick, group fitness director at Mission Viejo Crunch Fitness, Cardio Striptease is not high intensity, but it elevates heart rate and amounts to a decent hour-long workout. "The women have so much fun," he says. "They want to come out and be more sexy."

Other offerings at Crunch include the Police Academy Workout, the Fireman Workout (these are based on real training routines), the Circus Workout (yes, there's a trapeze involved), boxing in a ring (complete with Fight Club on Fridays), Fab (a form of Pilates in which you move instead of stretch on a mat), 10-minute strength training, and BOSU. BOSU, which stands for both sides up, is a balance and strength workout involving half a ball mounted on a platform. You stand on the ball, which is an unusual sensation.

"BOSU is very good for the older population, where balance is an issue," Glick says, adding that the often-ridiculed "chair aerobics" is also a significant workout for older people. "Sixty percent of the strength you lose (as you age) is in the upper body," Jordan confirms. "Chair aerobics addresses that area, with the intent of getting you to be able to bend over and pick up a grandchild or something you could not do before."

Indeed, the boomers are a prime target for gyms. It's economics. Per gym revenue is down 13%, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportclub Association (IHRSA) in Boston. The die-hards are already gym members, and the boomers-plus set constitutes a tantalizingly enormous population, many of whom are "deconditioned" as the industry drolly puts it.

"These programs may sound gimmicky, trendy, and goofy," laughs Jordan, "but if they pull in one person, mission accomplished."

Different Strokes for Older Folks

According to Bill Howland, research director of the industry trade group IHRSA, the fastest growing segment of club membership is over 35, with over 55 being even faster growing. "It's been a long time since mandatory PE," he notes. "We are looking at a kinder, gentler approach here.

"People who are not members," Howland continues, "can be intimidated by the club setting. They think they need to be fit already or that they will not fit in. But when you stop to think about it, not that many Americans are ultrafit."

Howland says he has been playing competitive sports since third grade and even he gets intimidated if he sees a bunch of perfect specimens bench pressing twice his body weight. "If I feel that way," he says, "I know others might, too."

Club operators are trying to be sensitive to this. Some clubs are niching out and separating the die-hards from the beginners (apparently, those who work out three hours a day sniff at the Janie-come-latelys, what were the odds?). Other clubs provide a relatively modest club "uniform," and still others prohibit tank tops. Howland advises getting involved in a group class. "Make friends," he says. (Indeed, one health club ad reads: "Get strong. Get fit. Get lucky.")

The Right Workout for You

Even if you are not looking to get lucky, you can get healthier. "Remember, exercise is a life-long commitment," says Harry DuVal, PhD, professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia in Athens. Or should we say live-long?

DuVal differentiates between wanting to be healthier and wanting to be perfectly fit. "You can be healthier simply by walking briskly 30 to 45 minutes most days of the week," he says. "That will give you the cardiovascular benefits, anticancer benefits, and cholesterol benefits." If you get tired of walking, do a stint of cycling or gardening. "Move!" urges Jordan.

Jordan ties appropriate exercise to one's Meyers-Briggs personality profile. "Different types of people like to do different things," she says. For instance, the social personality type probably needs group classes or a walking buddy. The competitive CEO type can play "blood" racquetball three times a week and not tire of it. The salesperson type of personality likes to flit from activity to activity, treadmill one day, inline skating the next. And the chief financial officer type reads the data and knows that x minutes on the elliptical trainer is the quickest, most efficient way to control weight and strengthen the heart. "That person will be on that trainer every day at six," Jordan says. "Year in and year out."

Apparently, underwater tai chi or punk aerobics aren't for everyone. But if you want to take off more than pretend clothes, your health club probably has something you haven't tried.

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.