On I went, out of the wood, passing the man leading without knowing I was going to do so. Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, curnchslap-crunchslap, across the middle of a broad field again, rhythmically running in my greyhound effortless fashion, knowing I had won the race though it wasn't half over, won it if I wanted it, could go on for ten or fifteen or twenty miles if I had to and drop dead at the finish of it, which would be the same, in the end, as living an honest life like the governor wanted me to. -Alan Sillitoe, "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Does the gym have a responsibility to its patrons?

This is sort of off-topic of running, but it's related.

I go to the NYSC, one of the largest gyms in New York.  My local (Harlem) branch is mostly hugely buff guys.  Crazy buff guys.  Lots of boxers, lots of actors, lots of personal trainers working out.

I'm still haunted by an experience I had a while back, over the summer, when I was working at a library downtown and went to a different branch.  The demographic there, unsurprisingly, was much different, with more college students and young professionals.

There was a girl on the elliptical that immediately caught my attention.  I don't know what verb to use to describe what you do on the elliptical, but she was doing it furiously.  She was overdressed for the warm weather in long sleeves and long pants and she was very, very skinny.

I have no idea what this girl's situation is, nor is it any of my business.  But everything about her suggested the possibility of an eating disorder.  She stayed on the elliptical, moving like a maniac, for quite some time before moving to the treadmill.  Where she did the same thing.  Then she went into the locker room to do some dynamic yoga (very odd place for it).  When she finished her locker room yoga, she opened a carefully packed quarter bagel and ate it in tiny bites over a period of several minutes.

But that got me wondering: what is the gym's responsibility toward its patrons?  Does it have one?  Should the gym have some sort of system of checking that people are maintaining healthy attitudes toward exercise?

The line between healthy and unhealthy attitudes toward exercise is a blurry one.  There are going to be unhealthy outliers on both ends of the spectrum no matter what, and way too many Americans fall into the unhealthy category because of their lethargy.  And if the gym were to target at-risk patrons, I could find myself moving up that list.  Last summer, I was there several times a week and on the treadmill for sometimes hours at a time.  (At my pace, my 7-10m treadmill runs meant that I got to watch all of Jersey Shore and most of SYTYCD.)

So, I ask: do you have an opinion?  Is what you do at the gym completely and totally your own business, or should the gym take steps to be sure that its patrons are healthy?

I honestly don't know how I feel.  I've heard the staff and trainers at my gym advocate ridiculous and unsafe seeming practices too many times to trust their judgment on this.  And I would obviously resent any interference in my workouts. But, at the same time, I'd love for my gym to be a lovely place of whole body wellness rather than a place that fosters potentially bad attitudes.

Also, I think crossfit is a cult. (Totally unrelated; just wanted to say that.)


  1. It's an interesting question. While it seems that an organization that strives to promote health and fitness, where do they draw the line? If I were morbidly obese and on a treadmill, I sure wouldn't want a gym rep coming up and saying "Have you checked with your doctor first?" or "You know your lifestyle is unhealthy, right?" Maybe gyns can do it through just good service. Greeting people, checking in on workouts, etc. But it's not really in their rights to intervene purely based on judgement. Great questions for though though.

    And I 100% agree that crossfit is a cult. :p

  2. That's a great idea - just more accountability in general. The only service we get at my gym is pretty much aggressive sales of personal training that are wrapped in the guise of customer service. "I can help you with your weight loss goals/improve your workouts/etc. if you only buy this 5 class package."

  3. A guy at my gym once had a seizure during a spin class. They made him go get checked out by a doctor before they would let him back. I once passed out in the gym shower after a sauna session (very scary yet oddly euphoric). If the gym staff had seen me I'm sure they would have pulled my membership until I got a medical clearance.

    The health clubs think in terms of their potential liability. Its difficult to go beyond that and start policing behaviors that extend beyond the gym.

  4. I'm sure you're right about liability. The whole medical clearance thing is interesting - once I was back into double-digit long runs after the blood clot thing, I asked my doctor about running again and I told her I was going to train for a marathon and wanted to be sure I wouldn't have any problems. Her response? "Good for you! I did 20 minutes on the elliptical this morning myself!" She's had no idea I was a runner and she was earnest in equating marathon training with the elliptical.

    Also, I'm curious about the euphoria involved in passing out in a sauna. Were you doing a scientology purification ritual?

  5. No scientology here. Just the rush of oxygen back to the brain once I woke up on the floor made for a strangely pleasant feeling, even though I was confused and didn't know where I was. Once I pulled myself together, I just finished my shower and thought "its a good thing no one saw that."

  6. Knowing what I know, your crossfit comment is awesome.

    Can you tell I've been lazy in uploading my pics, hence I haven't posted anything? I better get on to that!

  7. Yes, Carla, pictures!

    And Mike, I'm glad you're okay, but - I'll admit - I was kind of hoping that I would be able to say that I had a friend who nearly died in some sort of cult type steam ritual. I hope you didn't catch athlete's foot from the shower in any inappropriate places when you ended up on the floor. But seriously, I'm glad you're okay.

  8. There is a girl at the gym I go to who looks like she has an eating disorder; she is skin and bones, and is pounding away on the elliptical like there's no tomorrow. Its scary and I get so I can't even look at her because it scares me. So I guess I would say that I feel like the gym does have a certain responsibility, but I'm not sure how they'd go about it. And I doubt if anyone employed at the gym would have the appropriatre training to know what to say to someone like that anyway.

    Interesting topic.

  9. That's EXACTLY what I'm wondering. it's such a fine line between healthy and unhealthy when it comes to eating habits and exercise - at both ends of the spectrum.

  10. My friend just finished CrossFit and loved it but said it was cult-like! I don't know much about it.

    You know, I think the gym should watch out for things, but that everyone needs to take care of themselves. If they were to intervene, they could be held liable. I guess they just need to be able to help is something comes up.

    I understand your concern though. I would have probably thought the same thing!

  11. What an interesting talking point.

    My gut reaction is that gyms shouldn't have that responsibility, but I can't seem to figure out why I think this.

    Maybe the gyms could have those issues addressed as part of the membership application process in a questionnaire or something... so that resources/help could be given to "at-risk" individuals if they request it... rather than swooping in on "at-risk" patrons with unsolicited concern and advice?

  12. The gym has little to no responsibility for this woman's life choices. She and you are there at your own risk, and sign papers to that effect. If she is competent to make her own decisions, then she can do just that, even if they are bad decisions.

    Can the gym offer support and counseling? Sure, and I would hope that they do so. But to intervene because of a perceived problem would send fairly public facilities down a really slippery slope.

    I have seen this before at several gyms. It is a little frightening and frustrating. I hope she survives.

  13. That's an interesting idea!

    My first year of college, I was called in for optional counseling by the health center. Because I do anything people of authority tell me to, I went. It was nutritional counseling - turns out they'd given us a questionnaire and it included vague questions like "have you ever worried about your weight?" or, "are there certain foods you think are bad for you?" By answering yes to those questions I was flagged as at risk for an eating disorder (along with roughly 90% of the women in my class).

    I guess I like the idea of incorporating wellness and having resources/help available. And I do agree that it's a liability thing and so many alternatives are feasible. Mostly I fear that the gym would reenforce, rather than counteract, disordered attitudes toward overexercising. And who's to say where that line is, anyway?

    I'm thinking myself round in circles!

  14. Does a gym also need to ask obese patrons for a doctor's note before they show up and huff and puff red-facedly for 10 minutes on a machine? What about the woman who looks pudgy but turns out to be pregnant?

    I've seen the skinny-girl-frantically-exercising thing before and also tend to think "eeek" but what if she's been sick? What if she has an unusual condition? You'd be assuming that her physique is a choice and that seems like a slippery slope. (even if it in fact is her choice) Frankly, half of the serious runners I see don't look healthy so much as toned skin and bones.

    I am all for gyms kicking out the douchebag dude doing deals on the phone while elliptical-ing, or the one who sweats like a rainforest and walks away without wiping down. It is always a guy.