The Buffalo Athletic Club next to the Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence was among the locations bought by LA Fitness. File photo by Mark Mulville/Buffalo News.
By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
A health scare pushed me into my first gym membership when I was in my mid-30s, almost two decades ago. The specialist who took out a benign tumor and my right adrenal gland told me afterward that I could live to be 100, if I exercised regularly and ate mostly vegetables.
I still remember thinking, “I won’t live to be 100.”
Historically, I’ve not been a big veggie guy, even after that harrowing half year of diagnostic tests, hospitalization and recovery. But I did take the exercise advice to heart – sort of.
I’ve thought back on that horrible period in recent weeks, in the wake of LA Fitness buying the quartet of Buffalo Athletic Club coed fitness centers at Christmas time. I’ve also thought about how I approached my early forays into gym memberships and the more thorough approach I took in choosing the BAC when I moved back home to Buffalo from Central New York in September 2004.
BAC coed members have until Jan. 31 – this Friday – to shift their allegiance, and money, to LA Fitness or find another place to work out.
After talking with a few dozen folks about the sale in recent weeks, I’d be willing to guess that by week’s end most former BAC coed club seniors will have found their way to YMCA or JCC fitness centers (read why here); that the majority of women who spent most of their time taking BAC group fitness classes will end up at the BAC for Women clubs; and that LA Fitness will keep most younger BAC members, middle-aged, married coed members who like to work out together, and members who prefer spinning classes and cardio equipment.
I plan to do something a bit differently, and it’s a decision based on talking with lots of fitness and nutrition experts since starting my job as Refresh editor last February. I’ve also decided to take the advice several of those experts gave me for the Jan. 4 Refresh cover story on questions to ask when choosing a gym.
I started the process by deciding to take most of the last few weeks to carefully consider what to do, and to start with this bottom line: My decision would be limited to the rest of this year, no longer.
It also would be a decision based in part on my previous experiences. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
- Why bother joining a gym? I can just run outside. Walk the dog. Play with the kids.
- I’ll buy a treadmill and put it in the basement. That’s barely more than the cost of an annual family membership to some gyms and I can watch sports on the small TV while I work out.
- I’ll join a gym, have someone show me the Cybex machine circuit a couple of times and be power lifting in no time.
- Why aren’t I losing all the weight I wanted? Maybe I’ll take some fitness classes.
A busy job and civic life, and active kids, short-circuited the stay-at-home exercise plan in the mid-90s. And it isn’t easy finding gym time when you work late, have night meetings, and need to be relied upon as the chauffeur for dance lessons, missed school buses and after-school sports.
The treadmill was great for a while, starting in about 2000, but it broke down after a couple of years and I didn’t want to pay to repair it. After all, I could just run outside, walk the dog and play with the kids. I ended up hanging my laundry on it while I watched sports on the small TV in the basement.
So I joined some gyms, and did the same exercise routines over and over and over: first the treadmill, stairmaster, sit-ups and curls, and later, in more recent years, spinning or stationary bike and elliptical, followed by crunches and curls. I worked out as often as I thought a busy person could, one to three times a week.
Like many other fitness club members out there, I didn’t mind shelling out $299 a year to have four BAC branches available to me. It gave me less guilt during those times I made the wrong eating choices, and the club was there when that guilt, and some added pounds, became nagging enough for me to want to do something about them.
After having spent the last 11 months thinking, talking and writing about health and fitness for a living, that’s no longer good enough. Here’s why:
- A growing number of fitness trainers I’ve talked with since February, when The Buffalo News was getting ready to launch Refresh, have talked about how muscle confusion, through changing up your workouts, leads to more strength. And more strength burns more calories, even at rest.
- Some of the top experts I’ve interviewed – including Kathy Corff Rogers, a Jewish Community Center group fitness instructor – have underlined the importance of using good form when exercising. I’ve since watched young guys trying to curl way more than they’re able to properly, while lurching their backs and straining their shoulders, and have similar thoughts as when I see young women smoking cigarettes: “Enjoy the façade while it lasts.”
- And I remember what Cheryl Reddish, a personal trainer who has become a friend of mine, told me just before Christmas about personal training: It’s worth the expense to learn how to exercise properly; take a few personal training sessions before you attack a larger fitness plan, wherever it may be. (And make sure to check with your primary care doctor to make sure you can handle such a routine.)
I’ve kept these things in mind during the last three weeks as I’ve worked out and written about my experiences at the following gyms:
I asked for, and received, free guest passes to try the trio of clubs, and you can, as well. That’s one of the recommendations made in my choosing a gym story.
Other advice I followed included sticking with three gyms that are between where I live and where I work; paying attention to cleanliness and how gym members treat their facility, equipment and each other; paying attention to how staff treats members; sticking to clubs with spinning classes, the mainstay of my workouts; trying the clubs at times I would use them; and balancing all of that with a price I can afford.
I’ve already changed my diet considerably –including far more vegetables and almost no processed foods – since becoming Refresh editor, but I’ve been stuck when it comes to fitness.
I aim to change that in the coming weeks, using the following strategy:
- I’m going to pay $88 to work out at Hive for 30 days. That will include access to all the equipment and unlimited use of classes, which generally cost $5 a la carte for group fitness classes including spinning and $24 for specialty classes similar to group personal training sessions in other gyms. It also includes four semi-private coaching sessions and a customized workout program with “no contracts, no hard sell, no pressure.”
- Meanwhile, I’m going to pay even more for six personal training lessons at Maximum Fitness Training, in Amherst, where Reddish or her husband, Ed, will help show me proper form and school me on even better nutrition.
- And I’m going to grit my teeth and stick with LA Fitness – though I plan to work out mostly at the former Eastern Hills BAC LA Fitness location instead of the one a half-mile up the road in the Walmart Plaza. Both clubs are in Clarence, and your guess is as good as mine about how long LA Fitness will keep open the older former Eastern Hills BAC.
- I’m also going to spend the next 11 months trying to convince my girlfriend to join with me in a 2015 membership at the Independent Health Family Branch YMCA, next to ECC North in Williamsville, which truly is the most impressive gym I’ve seen in the region. I suspect most of my workout time would be when kids are in school, asleep or at home, and the extra amenities they have are incredible. But the Y costs $50 a month for an individual membership – $20 a month more than LA Fitness – and is further away from the Transit Road corridor where I live. The place costs $66 per couple, which would make the Y comparable in price, with lots more features.
The LA Fitness choice has been the hardest for me. Its communications office has ignored requests from me and another Buffalo News reporter for interviews since the sale, which should be enough to give anyone pause, not just journalists. I’ve spent hours in interviews in recent weeks with people upset at how the chain has treated them in the former BAC fitness facilities, though I’ve also heard good things from some folks, too. And this Yelp review page I read last week on the LA Fitness club in Valencia, Calif., did little to shake my ambivalence about the chain.
I get the sense that this new force on the WNY fitness landscape is the new Walmart of fitness, and have heard others describe it the same way, but I will say that, on balance, I’ve been treated well by staff members who have taken time to chat with me this month.
If I lived closer to BikeorBar on Elmwood Avenue, or one of the two JCCs, or Crunch, Catalyst, Planet Fitness or World Gym, I would have checked out those spots. If I was younger, I might have put less thought into this decision. If I was a senior citizen, I already would have fled to the YMCA.
But I am a 53-year-old guy who just renewed my annual BAC membership the night before the owners told the staff they were selling the coed clubs to LA Fitness.
I’m in a long-term relationship, and my girlfriend and I want to be part of a club where we can work out together. (She is upset by the sale, and her BAC friends have split into those who went to the BAC for Women and those, like her, who’ve chosen to go with LA Fitness, including some of her favorite fitness instructors.)
I don’t like to be bothered when I’m working out – especially by staffers trying to sell me additional services, or asking if I may know of a friend who might like to join a fitness club – but I do like to meet new people and make new friends. I sense LA Fitness may be the best choice for me in these ways.
My daughters are both college-aged now, so I can do without kids running around my gym. Been there, done that. I’ve yet to see a kid at LA Fitness in Clarence.
I’m also not crazy about a gym where every guy looks ripped, every woman looks buff and plastic, and everyone my age has a $40,000-plus vehicle in the parking lot - except me! I’ve not experienced that in any of the clubs I’ve checked out.
This said, those differences make the fitness world go round. It’s just a question of finding what works best for you – particularly before you sign some long-term agreement at a club you might sour on within a few weeks.
One thing I’ve heard from regional experts in recent weeks is that every club feels uncomfortable at first, just like a new job or a new relationship often does.
Once you decide, give it some time, a few months, and don't sign a longer term deal, at least at first.
And, most importantly, stick to your exercise and healthy eating plan as best you can.
You might just look in the mirror come bathing suit season and like very much what you see.