12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of the Gym

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Gyms and the people who work for them have a nearly impossible mission. Think about it: First they have to get you in the door. Then they have to convince you to shell out money for a membership you almost certainly won’t use enough to justify its cost. Finally, they have to make you feel comfortable with the inherently uncomfortable situation of looking sweaty and disgusting in front of strangers. And yet somehow, they manage to do it.

Still, big-box gyms are having an identity crisis. Smaller studios catering to niche preferences are elbowing into their territory. More than 40 percent of gym members dump their full-service membership every year, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Meanwhile, boutique studios like SoulCycle or Pure Barre are the fastest-growing part of the fitness industry, leaving the chain gyms shaking in their boots. 

“All major chains are in major financial disruption,” says Thomas Plummer, author of How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry. “They know what they do is not working but many are afraid to go to the next step.” While they figure out their next move, here are a few behind-the-scenes insights into how the big gyms work. 

1. THEY COUNT ON YOU NOT SHOWING UP.

“If you are not going to the gym, you are actually the gym's best customer,” writes Planet Money’s Stacey Vanek Smith at NPR. Many big clubs make their money by recruiting as many members as possible, which ends up being far more than they can actually accommodate. So they’re banking on you slacking on your workout goals. According to Smith, Planet Fitness has about 6500 members per gym but can only hold about 300 people at a time, max. 

Kevin Fowler, who directs a relatively small 400-member gym in Mississippi, says “if I had all of them in here even just through the day we wouldn’t be able to keep up with everything. We want the memberships and we want them to pay but we don’t necessarily want them to all come at one time.” 

2. THEY PUT THE CARDIO EQUIPMENT WHERE YOU CAN SEE IT ...

It’s in the big box gyms’ best interest to attract people who want easier, less frequent workouts rather than those with serious fitness goals. One way to do this is by hiding the equipment to avoid intimidating potential new customers. “Instead of displaying challenging equipment like weight benches and climbing machines in plain view, gyms will often hide weight rooms and other equipment in the back,” writes Smith. 

If they show any equipment at all, it’s usually the cardio machines. Ellipticals are the most popular machines because they’re easy to use, but they’re arguably not very efficient at getting your heart rate up. “Sure, the gliding motion of the elliptical burns calories, but that’s about it,” says fitness guru Jennifer Cohen. “It is also easy to slack off on the elliptical.” And who do the big gyms want to attract? Slackers. 

3. ... AND THEY PACK IN AS MUCH EQUIPMENT AS POSSIBLE.

Many large franchise operations get a cut of whatever equipment their franchisees buy—so the more equipment a gym is required to have, the more money the parent company gets. Rudy Fabiano, an architect who designs gyms through his firm, Fabiano Designs, uses the example of Planet Fitness: “They get maybe 10 percent to 15 percent of that package and the typical Planet buys half a million worth of equipment if not more. That’s $75,000 in profits. So it’s a little self-serving.” 

4. THOSE SIGN-UP FEES? YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY THEM.

A lot of gyms have a one-time fee that comes with a new membership—and those fees are often negotiable. “The gym I worked at before this had a $200 sign-up fee, but I’m not sure anybody actually paid that $200 sign up fee,” Fowler says. Aside from extra money in the gym owner’s pocket, those fees exist mainly as a way of running promotions. If a gym wants to get a bunch of new members, it uses the rule of scarcity and drops the fee for a short amount of time to make new members feel like they're getting a bargain. 

If the only thing preventing you from signing up is that one-time fee, the salesperson will often lower the fee or skip it completely. They’re salespeople, after all, and they’d rather lose that fee and gain a year-long paying member than get nothing at all. “If that fee was a deal-breaker, I would wave it,” says Mo Hall, who spent six months doing membership sales at a fitness chain on Long Island. “If you say you’re not gonna pay it, they’re not gonna let you walk out the door.” 

Also, you’re more likely to get a bargain near the end of the month. “Salespeople work on commission,” one gym employee said on Reddit. “Therefore, they are much more likely to give you a better deal at the end of the month, when they may be below goal or getting a big commission from your sale.” 

5. GROUP EXERCISE RETAINS MEMBERS.

According to Plummer, fitness clubs lose about 50 percent of their members on a year-to-year basis. “In the past, club operators have resorted to fairly sleazy tactics to keep these people going, such as letting the members slip from a contractual obligation at the end of the first year into a month-to-month option with the hopes that he won’t notice and will just keep making those payments or just let the club keep drafting his credit card or checking account,” he writes in How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry. 

There’s no doubt many clubs still use shady practices to retain members (the Better Business Bureau received more than 6000 complaints about gyms last year, many citing such practices), but other clubs realize there’s an easier way to keep members: get them involved in group exercise like yoga, spin classes or kickboxing.

“I have seen group exercise become very attractive to a large number of people because it offers accountability,” says Jeff Presley, a fitness instructor in Kentucky. “If I don’t show up, people are gonna miss me. If I do, I’m gonna be challenged because I’m working out with other people.” 

According to a Nielsen Global Consumer Exercise survey, gym members who participate in group exercise stay longer and are more likely to recommend their gym to family and friends. 

“You wanna encourage people to interact,” Fabiano says. He incorporates areas for socialization into his gym designs, whether that’s in the lobby, outside the locker rooms, or even on staircases where people have a tendency to gather anyway: “Those social engagements become important in terms of why you would keep going back.” 

6. THE YOGA MATS ARE PROBABLY FILTHY. 

Nothing turns off a customer like filth, and most clubs are aware of this. “Dirty clubs cost you more female members than any other issue,” Plummer writes. He even recommends owners hire “ghost shoppers” to visit the gym and report back on cleanliness. At Hall’s gym, one of the biggest recurring complaints was the strong smell of bleach in the air. 

But, according to Kim, a former fitness instructor in Alabama, the yoga mats are bacteria breeding grounds: “Even if the gym cleans the equipment ‘regularly,’ the regular cleaning may have been a week ago. At our gym, the mats were cleaned once a week. Yuck. Someone else's bare feet and sweaty back has been on that mat.” 

7. YOUR INSTRUCTOR MIGHT NOT BE CERTIFIED. 

When Kim became a group fitness instructor, all that was required of her was a three-day training course. “Personally, I have no background in any kind of physical education, fitness, or health,” she says. “Don't get me wrong—we do genuinely care about helping you get in better shape and keeping you from injuring yourself, but just because I can show you how to do a move doesn't mean it's a good move for you to be doing. Remember that the contract you signed when you joined the gym almost certainly released both the facility and its employees from any liability at all if you get hurt.”

8. PERSONAL TRAINERS KNOW WAY MORE THAN THEY WANT TO ABOUT THEIR CLIENTS. 

“You’re also their life coach and psychologist,” Fowler says. “When they get to know you, they’ll start telling you a lot. They’ll open up to you about their family, their kids, even their bathroom situations. It’s fine with me. I just listen to them and that’s all they want I guess.” 

9. EVERYONE WANTS BETTER ABS.

“The most popular thing people want to know when they come in is how to lose their stomach,” Fowler says. “Probably 90 percent of the people who come in want to know how to lose their stomach. But I’m always the bad guy because I have to tell them you can’t just do sit ups.” 

10. THE SAUNA IS PRIME REAL ESTATE.

“A lot of the older clientele, especially men, love the sauna, and God forbid that thing goes down for even one day,” says Patrick Miller, a former gym employee. Inevitably, though, the sauna does go down because it gets abused. “Whether it's from pouring water on the rock, which you are not supposed to do, to peeing on the rocks, when that sauna does go down, you may as well have just kidnapped their first born child,” Miller says.  

11. GYMRATS LOVE CRIME SHOWS.

For some reason, people tend to watch crime TV when they’re working out. “It’s lot of Law and Order,” Fowler says. “I haven’t quite figured it out yet.” Someone even created a Law & Order: SVU workout. It calls for 10 squats every time Elliot loses his cool. 

Even Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for the New Yorker, likes watching crime shows on the treadmill. And this is a woman who watches TV (often really good TV) for a living. “Generally, this lineup consists of reruns of Law & Order: SVU and NCIS, which is a show I have actually never watched outside of the gym,” she writes. “I watch using captions, with headphones plugged into Pandora, and since I don’t follow the plot closely, watching the show has evolved into an experimental and soothing experience, all about people glaring and breaking down doors. It’s nearly avant-garde, or like one of those meditation DVDs.” 

12. YES, THE EMPLOYEES ARE WATCHING YOU.

Work in a gym and you’ll notice all kinds of human quirks that go way beyond just grunting and excessive sweating. For example, there are some members who show up regularly but don’t use the gym to work out at all. 

“There was this really sweet lady who would come in and shower at the gym and then leave,” Presley says. “No one would see her work out. It was really strange.” 

Others drop in just to please their employers. “There are still members to this day who come in, scan their cards, and leave five minutes later just so their employer can see they hit their quota for the month and pay for their membership,” Miller says. 

And the locker rooms are like treasure troves of strange human behavior. Presley tells the story of a regular at his gym who everyone called "the ladies man." “He would flirt with all the women and the front desk workers,” he says. “I walked into the men’s locker room one day and he had his toupee off and was combing it and blow drying it.”

10 Terrifyingly Huge Birds You Should Know

AndreaWillmore/iStock via Getty Images
AndreaWillmore/iStock via Getty Images

They’re gigantic, they’re often defensive, and you wouldn’t want to run into them in a zoo after hours. Meet a few of the world’s biggest birds with attitude, from flightless giants to modern-day pterodactyls.

1. Ostrich

Everyone knows that the ostrich is the world’s biggest bird, weighing an average of 230 pounds and standing 7 feet tall (and some individuals can grow up to 9 feet). They can also chase you down: Ostriches are the fastest species on two legs, with a top speed of about 43 mph. They can maintain a swift 30 mph pace for 10 miles, making them the marathon champs of the avian world.

2. Southern Cassowary

Often called the most dangerous bird on Earth, in addition to being one of the planet’s biggest birds, the southern cassowary is roughly 150 pounds of mean. On each foot is a 5-inch claw that cassowaries use to defend themselves. At least two people have been kicked to death by cassowaries, the most recent being a Florida man who unwisely kept one of the birds as a pet.

3. Emu

Emu with eggs
JohnCarnemolla/iStock via Getty Images

Like a smaller, shaggier ostrich, the 5- to 6-foot emu is the second-largest bird on Earth (as well as a goofy spokesbird for insurance). During the breeding season, female emus fight enthusiastically over unattached males. But the results of this mating ritual are impressive: clutches of forest-green, oval eggs that resemble giant avocados.

4. Greater Rhea

This flightless bird is named for the Titan goddess Rhea, who gave birth to all of the Olympian gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. At up to 5 feet tall and 66 pounds, the greater rhea may not seem like as much of a terror as the ostrich. But it gathers in massive flocks of up to 100 birds during the non-breeding season, so watch out if you happen to be in its South American habitat.

5. Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian pelicans
musicinside/iStock via Getty Images

How scary can a pelican be, you ask? When it stands almost 6 feet tall, weighs 33 pounds, and has a wingspan of 9 feet—all traits of the Dalmatian pelican—it's pretty petrifying. These scruffy-feathered monsters, native to Europe and Asia, breed in colonies of up to 250 pairs and can gulp impressive mouthfuls of fish in one go.

6. Mute Swan

One of the heaviest flying birds, mute swans look harmless as they glide over ponds, lakes, and rivers. But mute swans are far from silent when defending their families and territory. Male swans warn interlopers that they’re getting too close with a hiss, then can launch a straight-up assault, bashing the intruder with their wings. They’ll even attack kayakers, canoeists, and people just minding their own business.

7. Andean Condor

Andean condor
Donyanedomam/iStock via Getty Images

This freakishly big vulture isn’t satisfied with just any carrion—it prefers large carcasses like cattle and deer for dinner. Maintaining its average weight of 25 pounds requires a lot of calories, after all. Its wingspan is slightly less than its northern cousin, the California condor, but it still reaches a dramatic 9 to 10 feet.

8. Cinereous Vulture

Another big bird with a 10-foot wingspan, this Old World vulture has excellent vision to spot carrion while it flies, and a featherless head that resists the accumulation of gore when it feeds. Though it’s intimidating to look at, the cinereous vulture plays an important role in its ecosystem by cleaning up roadkill and other dead animals.

9. Marabou Stork

Marabou stork
Sander Meertins/iStock via Getty Images

As if its red-tinged wattle, black back, and dagger-esque bill weren’t alarming enough, the marabou stork is sometimes called the “undertaker bird” thanks to its Dracula-like appearance. It also eats other birds. The largest verified wingspan on a marabou stork measured 10.5 feet, though unverified reports cited a specimen with 13.3-foot span.

10. Shoebill

Shoebill storks may not be the tallest, heaviest, or widest-winged birds, but just look at that death stare. On top of having a nutcracker for a face, the 5-foot-tall shoebill leads a fearsome lifestyle. It stands absolutely still for hours to hunt prey, watching for lungfish or baby crocodiles, then spreads its wings and collapses over it while trapping the target in its bill.

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

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