NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.
The gym? During a pandemic?
I had equated the risk level of working out with a bunch of sweaty, heavy-breathing fellow human beings — shudder — to approximately the same level as licking the pharmacy counter at CVS. You’d have to be an idiot to do it.
I even wrote about gyms opening before they were supposed to, absolutely blown away by the folks who were piling in. What were they thinking?
No. Nope. Screw that. Not now. Maybe not ever. I’m all set. Besides, bikini season is over.
And this is the camp I was in on the gym issue prior to, oh, a week ago, when in the name of journalism and because I was curious, I did, indeed, go back.
Here’s what happened.
IT’S NOT A GYM, IT’S A “LUXURY ATHLETIC RESORT”
Let me preface this story by saying there are gyms that call themselves “fitness clubs,” when they are, in fact, just gyms, but the one I belong to, the one my boyfriend signed us up for while I told him he was nuts, calls itself a “luxury athletic resort.”
If you, too, belong to one of the six absurdly posh Life Time “luxury athletic resorts” in New Jersey, you understand. It’s not hyperbole.
In February, when said boyfriend called me at work to tell me he had signed us up, at a three-figures-per-month price, my heart-rate shot to treadmill-sprint level.
“You WHAT?” I muffle-screamed into my cell phone before walking away from my desk to read him the Riot Act out of earshot of my coworkers.
I have belonged to — I mean, donated money to — various gyms in my 36 years on this earth. I don’t want to know the total I’ve spent, but I know this: It’s not for me. I’m not trying to meet someone. I can play tennis. I can ride a bike. I can do yoga at home with 90 Day Fiancé on in the background. And it’s all FREE.
Nevertheless, with a puss my face and shuffling my feet like a bratty kid, I gave it a try.
I have never drank the metaphoric Kool-Aid harder and faster than I did after my first visit to our local Life Time. It’s a monstrosity, 112,000 square feet, with all sorts of classes, several pools, hot tubs, a freaking rock-climbing wall and equipment that works out muscles I didn’t even know I had. It’s the kind of ritzy place I would mock endlessly if I didn’t wind up loving it so damn much.
We were hooked. The money was now “an investment in our health and well-being.” Overnight we turned into people who went to 8 a.m. yoga classes. We thought seriously about buying rock-climbing shoes. We became evangelical, telling everyone we knew within a 20-mile radius they should join, too.
Three weeks later, coronavirus shut down everything, and we watched the yoga signups plummet from “register a day in advance or you’ll have to nama-stay home” to 27 of 27 spots available. Eesh.
Game over. Gyms over. Time to go home and bury our pandemic fears in Ben & Jerry’s without looking back. And so we did.
“I WOULDN’T DO THAT”
I’m still more cautious than most when it comes to COVID-19, my list of “won’ts” is its own Green Eggs and Ham.
Would you go indoors to eat? Would you risk it for a treat? Not in a plane. Not in a train. Not for a pedicure. Not till we have a cure. I will not go here or there. I will not go practically anywhere.
I browsed in HomeSense for a half hour the other day and it felt like I had committed a felony (but, also, amazing).
When I told my friend who had never stopped going out during the pandemic that I was going to go to the gym, she scoffed, “Oh, geez, well I wouldn’t do thaaat!”
My plan was to go to midday on a Monday, scope out how the place had adjusted, and then book it out faster than you can say “stringent sanitation protocols for proper disinfection.”
We missed two turns on the way there. That’s how long it had been.
HAVE YOU TRIED RUNNING IN A MASK YET?
In the parking lot, we got the closest space we’d ever gotten, grabbed our masks and braced for re-entry.
In addition to scanning our membership barcodes from Life Time’s app (yeah, it’s that kind of place), there was a tablet with a camera on top that you had to position yourself in front so it could take your temperature. How very 2020.
When we hit the main gym floor, there were abundant displays with cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers, signs asking patrons to “help keep our community healthy” by wearing masks, social distancing and cleaning the machines. Every other treadmill was closed, a sticker explaining they were “temporarily unavailable to allow for social distancing.”
We counted three people in the weight-lifting area, where the apex predators hang. One woman on a step machine. Another on a treadmill. An older gentleman on a recumbent bike. A pregnant lady in the stretching area. And that was it.
I thought about the few times we’d hit Home Depot and how much more crowded that had been. I looked back at the pregnant woman, who didn’t seem nervous at all.
“There’s, like, seven of us here,” I said to my boyfriend. “This might actually make me want to come.”
I have yet to run in a mask, so we decided to give that a try, for posterity’s sake. I cranked up the treadmill to get the full effect and get it over with.
Terrible. The cloth clung to my face with each inhale. The worst was when I finished and just tried to catch my breath. I was half tempted to peek my nose out, but instead suffered in silence, prepared to collapse if it meant I hadn’t broken the rules.
I then understood those mask brackets Facebook has been trying to sell to me, the ones that keep the thing from collapsing on your face. And now my mask was sweaty, too. Yuck. Never again.
A TRUE PANDEMIC OASIS
After our four-minute sprints, we glanced at the rest of the gym equipment, then at the beckoning outdoor pool and decided we’d worked hard enough. And I only came so I could write a story, really, so why push it?
We walked to the locker-rooms, where water fountains had been closed off with Life Time-branded caution tape. Nice touch. The bikes in the spin studio had been moved to the giant gym so they could be set six feet apart.
As I entered the locker room, I practically bumped into a staffer in the entranceway.
“Is it open?” I asked, like a dope, explaining it was my first day back.
“Of course!” she said. “And good, you got the memo to bring your own towel!” (I hadn’t gotten the memo, just thought it was wise.)
There was more signage inside. One explained that only four members were allowed in each locker bay at a time.
Locker rooms always gross me out, so I somehow managed to change into a bathing suit while holding all of my stuff so it didn’t touch anything, which would have made quite the show if there were a single other person in there with me, which, thankfully, there wasn’t.
Since we joined in February, we had never even seen the outdoor pool — a massive, resort-like oasis with big waterslides, swimming lanes, all the fixings, and, oh, three other people. No children were allowed in till noon. Angels sang. We could hardly contain ourselves.
Our memberships had automatically renewed Sept. 1 (though we missed that email), and this was Sept. 14.
“We’ve been paying for this for TWO WEEKS and haven’t been using it?” I said.
It was like we had cracked some code — well, us and the few older women there, veterans who knew to BYOPN, bring your own pool noodle.
We exchanged knowing smiles. We were pioneers, and we were being rewarded. I sent my sister, who was back at work as vice principal at a high school, a photo of the glistening, empty pool, before my boyfriend pointed out what a jerk move that was.
“The only way this could get better is if we could order a pizza,” he said.
“Or waiters in Hawaiian shirts serving cocktails with mini umbrellas!” I replied.
But alas, this was the gym after all. So instead, we bought a veritable feast from the “Life Cafe” — a salad, a turkey sandwich, deviled eggs that were just hard-boiled eggs with a sprinkle of paprika, nacho chips made from beans, two smoothies and a chocolate muffin. Delicious.
“I can’t tell if we’ve done something terribly wrong or terribly right,” I said to him, as I wiped chocolate crumbs from my face.
“Don’t worry, it’s probably all made from beans,” he answered, and then reminded me about our four-minute sprint.
I waited 30 minutes then swam a negligible amount of laps. We ended the day in the hot tub, which we had to ourselves, marveling at the speedy WiFi, the yummy lunch and deciding we could both just live out of the place for a while. Even if it means we only come during the slow hours. (I’ve yet to see the place on a weekend.) All of it makes me glad we didn’t join a one-room budget gym.
After our visit, I chatted with Greg Luttman, general manager of Life Time’s first N.J. club in Florham Park, which opened in 2008. (There are now six Life Times in N.J., and hundreds across the U.S.)
Luttman says Life Time had a 500-page manual for reopening and that they’ve been happy to walk members through all the adjustments they’ve made — a hospital-level air filter system, extra cleaning protocols, playbooks for each specific area of the facility including the pool, cafe, kids’ area, etc.
“Cleanliness has always been a huge reason people join here,” he says. “And the square footage is undeniable.”
They don’t ever expect to hit the state’s 25% capacity restriction because they never used to pre-COVID anyway, since the place is so giant. Still, he acknowledges it’s been a slow start in terms of folks coming back.
“Every day that goes by, we are getting more and more people,” Luttman says. “We don’t advertise. We get business by word of mouth, and we know that’s how we’ll get our business back, too. As people come back, as people feel comfortable, as they see what we’re doing, they’re spreading the word.”
We were back the next morning for outdoor yoga on the pool deck, joined only by a handful of others. And I went back again Friday, the sun warming my face while I lay in shavasana, wondering how many classes I’ll be able to get in before it gets too cold.
We were sure we’d be canceling our memberships, but I’ll keep going for as long as it feels safe. … or until the rest of you show up.
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