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.
"Most fitness companies like to feel they are like the Maytag repairman," May says. "They sit around all day with nothing to do because nothing breaks."
"With strength machines, things can break," Cotton tells WebMD. "I think ... equipment maintenance is important to getting a good workout. It's a drag to work out on machines that are not properly lubricated."
But Cotton says equipment safety isn't a huge problem for health clubs. Most clubs have some kind of regular maintenance program, either through a dealer who represents a manufacturer or in-house.
"If a club is buying through a dealer that represents a manufacturer, oftentimes the dealer will have a maintenance contract where they will set it up with the club to come out and check the equipment on a monthly or weekly basis," says Harvey Voris, chairman of the fitness products standards committee of the American Society for Testing and Materials. "We don't see a lack of maintenance as being as big a problem as people just not paying attention."
Voris says bigger clubs and national chains are more likely to do their own maintenance. But that's not necessarily a good thing.
"The bigger ones have in-house maintenance staffs, because they have so many clubs in a given area," he says. "But that guy is also responsible for the wet areas like the spas and the johns. A lot of times, that tends to be a transient position."
For health clubs that want to perform their own equipment safety and maintenance checks, the American College of Sports Medicine publishes guidelines. "This could be considered a standard of care for the industry," Cotton says.
The guidelines recommend inspecting all equipment parts for defects prior to installation. After the equipment is in place, the club's staff should perform another safety check. A system also should be developed to promptly remove any machine that is defective or potentially dangerous. Finally, the guidelines direct that "an ongoing inspection and preventative maintenance program should be conducted for all equipment."
"The risk really is [in not] using the equipment properly," Cotton says. "You can hurt yourself on brand spanking new equipment. You should have an orientation to the equipment before you use it."
Consumers also have a responsibility to ask questions and demand answers. Start by asking yourself whether the club meets your personal needs. For instance, what are the business hours? Not everyone works Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 schedules. Will the club be open when you want to work out? Does the club have a diversity of programs that goes beyond machines and includes indoor cycling and aerobic classes, yoga or swimming? Are these offered at times you can be there? Is the location convenient to where you live or work? How much does it cost, and do you have to sign a long-term contract? And when touring clubs, Voris suggests that you closely examine the way the equipment looks, as well as basic hygiene issues.
"If the machines are all in a shambles, and the upholstery is cracked and split, and there is dust and hair and gunk on the equipment, that speaks a lot potentially about the maintenance of the equipment," he says.
There are other measures, too. Zlotnick says years of experience have taught her to check out the number of staff members the club employs. More importantly, she wants to see how many are on the floor and actually working with club members. And while Zlotnick says her current health club passes Voris' test -- clean, neat, and plenty of machines available - for safety reasons she's curious to know just how often the machines are maintained.
"I never see too many broken machines," she says. "But I would like to know. I'll go in there and ask that question, absolutely."