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.”

7 Things You Might Not Know About Mario Lopez

Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley
Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley

While several of the actors featured in the 1990s young-adult series Saved by the Bell have fared well following the show’s end in 1994, Mario Lopez is in a class by himself. The versatile actor-emcee can be seen regularly on Extra, as host of innumerable beauty pageants, and as the author of several best-selling books on fitness. For more on Lopez, check out some of the more compelling facts we’ve rounded up on the multi-talented performer.

1. A WITCH DOCTOR SAVED HIS LIFE.

Born on October 10, 1973, in San Diego, California to parents Mario and Elvia Lopez, young Mario was initially the picture of health. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. In his 2014 autobiography, Just Between Us, Lopez wrote that he began having digestive problems immediately after birth, shrinking to just four pounds. Though doctors administered IV hydration, they told his parents nothing more could be done. Desperate, his father reached out to a witch doctor near Rosarito, Mexico who had cured his spinal ailments years earlier. The healer mixed a drink made of Pedialyte, Carnation evaporated milk, goat’s milk, and other unknown substances. It worked: Lopez kept it down and began growing, so much so that his mother declared him “the fattest baby you had ever seen in your life.”

2. HE STARTED ACTING AT 10.

A highly active kid who got involved in both tap and jazz dancing and amateur wrestling, Lopez was spotted by a talent scout during a dance competition at age 10 and was later cast in a sitcom, a.k.a. Pablo, in 1984. That led to a role in the variety show Kids Incorporated and in the 1988 Sean Penn feature film Colors. In 1989, at the age of 16, he won the role of Albert Clifford “A.C.” Slater in Saved by the Bell. By 1992, Lopez was making public appearances at malls, where female fans would regularly toss their underthings in his direction.

3. HE COULD PROBABLY BEAT YOU UP.

Lopez wrestled as an amateur throughout high school. According to the Chula Vista High School Foundation, Lopez was a state placewinner at 189 pounds in 1990. (On Saved by the Bell, Slater was also a wrestler.) He later complemented his grappling ability with boxing, often sparring professionals like Jimmy Lange and Oscar De La Hoya in bouts for charity. In 2018, Lopez posted on Instagram that he received his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Gracie Barra Glendale instructor Robert Hill.

4. HE TURNED DOWN PLAYGIRL.

Lopez’s active lifestyle has made for a trim physique, but he’s apparently unwilling to take off more than his shirt. In 2008, Lopez said he was approached to pose for Playgirl but declined. The magazine reportedly offered him $200,000.

5. HE WAS MARRIED FOR TWO WEEKS.

Lopez had a well-publicized marriage to actress Ali Landry, but not for all the right reasons. The two were married in April 2004 and split just two weeks later, with Landry alleging Lopez had not been faithful. Lopez later disclosed he had made a miscalculation during his bachelor party in Mexico, cheating on Landry just days before the ceremony.

6. HE APPEARED ON BROADWAY.

Lopez joined the cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line in 2008, portraying Zach, the director who coaches the cast of aspiring dancers. (It was his first stage appearance since he participated in a grade school play, where he played a tree.) His run, which lasted five months, was perceived to be part of a rash of casting choices on Broadway revolving around hunky performers to attract audiences. The role was thought to be the start of a resurgence for Lopez, who had previously appeared on Dancing with the Stars and has been a co-host of the pop culture newsmagazine show Extra since 2007.

7. HE BELIEVES HIS DOG SUFFERED FROM POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION.

In 2010, Lopez and then-girlfriend (now wife) Courtney Mazza had their first child, Gia. According to Lopez, his French bulldog, Julio César Chavez Lopez, exhibited signs of depression following the new addition to the household. Lopez also said he used his extensive knowledge of dogs to better inform his voiceover work as a Labrador retriever in 2009’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas and 2010’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation.

The Rise and Fall of 5 Claimed Mediums

Boston Public Library // Public Domain
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

In the late 19th and early 20th century, spiritualism was all the rage. People were looking for answers and comfort after the Civil War, so they turned to mediums and séances for spiritual guidance. The religious movement had such a pull that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer. Despite its popularity, many debunkers argued that it had little legitimacy—alleged mediums were con artists who took advantage of the emotionally vulnerable and drained them of all their funds. Perhaps most surprising of all is that what turned into an enormous religious following started out as a simple prank pulled by two preteen girls.

1. THE FOX SISTERS

The Fox Sisters
Emma Hardinge Britten, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In late March of 1848, Margaret Fox, a farmer’s wife living in Hydesville, New York, with her daughters, began to hear noises. These knocking sounds, she decided, could not have been human and certainly were not produced by her children. The mysterious banging became so maddening that she invited her neighbor in to hear for herself. Although skeptical, the neighbor humored the woman and huddled into a small room with Margaret and her two young girls, Maggie and Kate. The mother would ask questions that would be answered with a series of knocks, or as they would later be called, “rappings.” By the end of the night, both the mother and neighbor were convinced that Maggie and Kate were mediums, with the ability to communicate with the other side.

Soon their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York, got involved. Hearing of the girls’ otherworldly “powers,” the eldest sister saw dollar signs and promptly booked sessions for people looking to communicate with the dead. Their act took off, and soon the girls were touring the country. Maggie eventually found love while on the road, and settled down with an adventurer named Elisha Kent Kane. Kane convinced her to give up spiritualism, which she did until his untimely death in 1857. Meanwhile, Kate married a fellow spiritualist and fine-tuned her act. She was so successful in her deception that respected chemist William Crookes wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Science in 1874 that he thoroughly tested Kate and was convinced the sounds were true occurrences and not a form of trickery.

The façade went on for decades, until 1888 when Maggie finally spoke up. After her husband had died, she was left penniless and alone, and had turned to drinking. She wrote a letter to the New York World confessing her and her sister’s trickery prior to a demonstration at the New York Academy of Music. “I have seen so much miserable deception! Every morning of my life I have it before me. When I wake up I brood over it. That is why I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description,” she wrote.

She then explained that the mysterious thumping was the result of an apple tied to a string that the sisters would drop to torment their mother. At the New York Academy of Music, with her sister Kate in the audience, Maggie demonstrated her tricks to a raucous crowd of skeptics and staunch believers. She put her bare foot on a stool and showed how she could bang the stool with her big toe, producing the famous rapping noise. The Spiritualist world took a hit, but continued to persist. The same could not be said for the Fox sisters' careers. Although Maggie recanted her confession a year later—likely due to her poverty—the sisters were never trusted again and they both died penniless.

2. THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS

Photograph of the Davenport Brothers in front of their spirit cabinet
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Fox sisters may have burned out by the end of their career, but that didn't stop a slew of copy-cats and spin-off performers. Ira and William Davenport of Buffalo, New York, were inspired by the rappings of the Fox sisters and decided to try a session of their own with their father. Their session was so chilling (they would later claim their sister actually levitated) that they decided to make a show. In 1855, 16-year-old Ira and 14-year-old William got on stage for the first time. With the help of their spirit guide, a ghost named Johnny King, they performed a number of elaborate tricks that went past simple rappings; often bells, cabinets, ropes, and floating instruments would be utilized in the performance. Members of the audience would swear they saw instruments fly over their heads, or feel ghostly hands on their shoulders. The brothers were heralded as true mediums and enjoyed fame for the rest of their professional careers. After William passed away in 1877, Ira gave up the medium business for a quieter life.

He was not heard from again until magician Harry Houdini sought him out years later. The two became friends and Ira let him in on a few of his tricks, including one called "The Tie Around the Neck" that not even Ira’s children knew. The surviving Davenport told Houdini all about the tricks and trouble that went into keeping their secret, including reserving the front row for their friends and hiring numerous accomplices. Interestingly, some of their greatest tricks didn’t involve any work. Reports of flying instruments and mysterious sensations were purely delusions of the audience members. “Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that they heard them flying over their heads,” Davenport told Houdini.

3. EVA CARRIÈRE

A photo of Eva Carrière regurgitating ectoplasm
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

Now armed with the secrets of the Davenport Brothers, as well as his own experiences as a medium in his younger days, Houdini set out to expose fraudulent mediums throughout the 1920s. He had initially believed that although it was all fake, it didn't harm anyone. The death of his mother made him realize the harm these fraudsters were really doing, and so Houdini set out to reveal their tricks. One such huckster was Eva Carrière.

As detailed in Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Carrière was a medium known for her ability to produce a mysterious substance called ectoplasm from a number of orifices. Carrière, with the help of her assistant and alleged lover Juliette Bisson, would be stripped down and searched to prove there was nothing on her person. She would then let Bisson put her in a trance, where Houdini said he was certain she was truly asleep. After some time, she would conjure up ectoplasm from her mouth that looked “like a colored cartoon and seemed to have been unrolled.” Houdini left feeling underwhelmed and unconvinced.

Still, Carrière seemed to hold many in her trance. A researcher named Albert von Schrenck-Notzing spent several years—1909 to 1913—working with her, and by the end, he was completely convinced. He published his findings and photographs in his book Phenomena of Materialisation. Ironically, this book ended up being Carrière's undoing: A skeptic named Harry Price wrote that the pictures proved that the faces seen in the medium’s ectoplasm were actually regurgitated cut-outs from the French magazine Le Miroir.

4. ANN O’DELIA DISS DEBAR

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar had gone through many monikers and identities in her lifetime, but according to Houdini [PDF], she started as Editha Salomen, born in Kentucky in 1849 (others claim she was named Delia Ann Sullivan and born in 1851). She left home at 18 and somehow convinced the high society of Baltimore that she was of European aristocracy. “Where the Kentucky girl with her peculiar temperament and characteristics could possibly have secured the education and knowledge which she displayed through all her exploits I am at a loss to understand,” Houdini wrote. Regardless, Salomon was extremely successful in her con artistry and managed to cheat Baltimore’s wealthiest out of a quarter million dollars. Claiming that funds were tied up in foreign banks, it was easy to drain potential suitors out of money and luxury.

After a quick stint at an insane asylum for trying to kill a doctor, Salomen took up hypnotism and married a man of slow wit named General Diss Debar. As Ann O’Delia Diss Debar and a general’s wife (although modern scholarship says that he wasn't a general and they weren't ever actually married), she found that people were eager to trust her. She took advantage of this trust when she met a successful lawyer named Luther R. Marsh, who had just lost his wife. After convincing him that she was a skilled medium, Diss Debar persuaded him to turn over his home on Madison Avenue, which she then turned into a spiritualistic temple and successful business. The swindler created spirit paintings, which, through sleight of hand, seemed to appear out of nowhere on blank canvases, as if the spirits painted them.

These paintings eventually landed Diss Debar in legal trouble when Marsh invited the press to come and see them. In 1888, the so-called medium was hauled into court for deceiving Marsh and swindling him out of house and home. Many testified against Diss Debar, including her own brother, but the most convincing participant was professional Carl Hertz, who was called in to disprove her trickery. With ease, he replicated each of Diss Debar’s tricks, and performed some that not even she could do. Satisfied that the woman was a fraud, the state incarcerated her for six months at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Despite all this, Marsh continued to believe in spiritualism. Unfortunately for Diss Debar, he seemed like the only one—she attempted to resurrect her career, but was unsuccessful, later being hauled back into court for charges of debt a year after her release. She traveled between London and America for years, going in and out of prison, before finally disappearing for good in 1909.

As Houdini put it harshly:

“Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s reputation was such that she will go down in history as one of the great criminals. She was no credit to Spiritualism; she was no credit to any people, she was no credit to any country—she was one of these moral misfits which every once in awhile seem to find their way into the world. Better for had she died at birth than to have lived and spread the evil she did.”

5. MINA CRANDON

Mina Crandon in 1924
Malcolm Bird, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 1920s, Mina Crandon (also known as Margery, or the Blonde Witch of Lime Street) was one of the most well-known and controversial mediums of her time. Born in Canada to a farmer, Margery moved to Boston and took up a number of careers, working as a secretary, an actress, and an ambulance driver. After divorcing her first husband, she married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a surgeon who studied at Harvard. It was the doctor who introduced her to spiritualism and eventually led her down the path to becoming a medium.

Margery was a friendly, pretty woman, but the ghost of her brother Walter was much less charming. The medium would conjure his spirit, who would then rap out messages, tip over tables, and yell at the participants. Often ectoplasm would ooze from her ears, nose, mouth, and dress. The mysterious substance sometimes took the form of a hand and supposedly rang bells or touched the participants. Her performance was so convincing that it attracted the Boston elite and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As her popularity soared, her prayers were even read by the U.S. Army.

In 1923, Harry Houdini joined a panel of scientists formed by The Scientific American to find a true medium. The prize for convincing them was $5000. The panel was quite convinced with Margery and was gearing up to give her the money for her legitimacy. Houdini wanted to take a look at the medium for himself, and in 1924, headed to Boston.

When the séance began, Houdini sat next to Margery with their hands joined and feet and legs touching. Earlier that day, the skeptic had worn a bandage around his knee all day, making it extremely sensitive to the touch. The heightened sensitivity helped him feel Margery move as she used her feet to grab various props during the act. After figuring out the scheme, Houdini was convinced of the fraud and wanted to go public. Despite his confidence, the rest of the panel remained uncertain, putting off the decision. By October, The Scientific American published an article explaining the panel was hopelessly divided. The hesitation angered both Houdini and Margery’s spirit. “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch,” Walter screamed. "Get the hell out of here and never come back. If you don't, I will."

By November, Houdini circulated a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium "Margery." He then put on performances recreating Margery’s tricks for the amusement of skeptics. Humiliated and without prize money, Margery made a prediction in 1926. “Houdini will be gone by Halloween,” Walter declared. Coincidentally, Houdini did die that October 31 from peritonitis.

Margery and her prickly ghost brother may have gotten the last laugh, but by 1941, her reputation was in ruins from Houdini’s mockery. Still, she never confessed to her trickery, even on her deathbed.

Additional sources: Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno, 1972.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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