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.”

America's 50 Best Workplaces, According to Employees

Chaay_Tee/iStock via Getty Images
Chaay_Tee/iStock via Getty Images
Though there are a number of factors that go into deciding whether a job is right for you, company culture plays an essential—albeit sometimes overlooked—part. Fortunately, career site Indeed has gone straight to the source and compiled a ranking of America's best workplaces, based on employee feedback, which could help make your next job search a whole lot easier. As Thrillist reports, Indeed's rankings were based on employees’ reviews on their “overall work experience.” To narrow the field down, Indeed zeroed in specifically on Fortune 500 companies that “have had at least 100 verified employee-submitted reviews posted to Indeed's site in the past two years.” Computer software giant Adobe came out on top, with Facebook and Southwest Airlines not too far behind. Meanwhile, United Airlines and Foot Locker just made the cut. You can read the full list of America's top 50 companies below, and read more about Indeed's methodology here.
  1. Adobe
  1. Facebook
  1. Southwest Airlines
  1. Live Nation
  1. Intuit
  1. Costco Wholesale
  1. Delta
  1. eBay
  1. Microsoft
  1. Johnson & Johnson
  1. Bristol-Myers Squibb
  1. Salesforce
  1. Fannie Mae
  1. Eli Lilly
  1. JetBlue Airways
  1. Freeport-McMoRan
  1. Fluor Corp.
  1. Apple
  1. Cisco
  1. Capital One
  1. Nike
  1. Amgen
  1. Booz Allen
  1. Charles Schwab
  1. Viacom
  1. Southern Company
  1. NextEra Energy
  1. Publix
  1. Land O’Lakes
  1. Motorola Solutions
  1. Pfizer
  1. Lockheed Martin
  1. Starbucks
  1. Merck
  1. ConocoPhillips
  1. American Express
  1. Applied Materials
  1. DTE Energy
  1. Best Buy
  1. Boston Scientific
  1. Northrop Grumman
  1. Discover Financial Services
  1. BlackRock
  1. Darden Restaurants
  1. MGM Resorts International
  1. Hilton
  1. Edward Jones
  1. Marriott International
  1. Foot Locker
  1. United Airlines
[h/t Thrillist]

The 11 Best Found Footage Movies

Twenty years ago this summer, moviegoers everywhere were shaken to their core by a film about three film students who went into the woods with a couple of cameras and met a seemingly supernatural entity that wouldn’t let them leave. It was called The Blair Witch Project, and it proved to be a landmark film for horror cinema, indie cinema, and a particular filmmaking medium known as "found footage."

The idea behind found footage films is simple: Make a movie while acting like you’re not trying to make a movie. This all really happened, someone who was there filmed it, and then you just found the resulting video and cut it together. It’s a method that allows plenty of room for improvisation, often requires minimal budget, and can get a lot of mileage out of very few locations and characters. That makes it an attractive technique for many filmmakers, but it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds. So, in tribute to The Blair Witch Project and its impact, here are the movies that got found footage right in the best way possible.

1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Cannibal Holocaust is not a 100 percent "found footage" movie, but it didn’t have to be, because it paved the way for dozens, if not hundreds, of other films in the subgenre with its use of the found footage technique. The film is the story of an anthropologist who sets out to find a group of filmmakers who went missing while documenting indigenous tribes in South America, and discovers that only their film cans and their bones have survived.

The back half of the film is largely composed of this found footage, as the anthropologist reviews the cans of film and discovers the documentarians were often more savage than the tribes they set out to chronicle, as their bloodlust and exploitation reached fever pitch shortly before their deaths. The film is best known for the controversy it caused, including the rumor that several of the onscreen killings were real (Ruggero Deodato, the film's director, was forced to bring one of the actors into court with him—to prove he was alive), but it’s also a surprisingly complex look at appropriation, voyeurism, and our addiction to filmed spectacle.

2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Yes, The Blair Witch Project really does still work as a minimalist scarefest, but even if it didn’t it would still be held up as one of the most important works in the found footage subgenre. At a time when found footage wasn’t on the minds of moviegoers and the internet was still in its relative infancy, this film arrived like a dark gift and helped to shape what the looming 21st century would look like in terms of horror filmmaking. If you were paying attention to pop culture at the time, you probably remember the brilliant viral marketing campaign that made you believe, if only for a second, that this was a real lost film made by dead students. And even if the marketing didn’t get you, the children laughing in the dark did.

3. Cloverfield (2008)

Many found footage movies are, by their very nature, small scale affairs involving only a few characters and a story that can be told in a relatively confined way, which makes them great for low-budget filmmakers. If you’re producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves, however, you look at the subgenre and you start to think about a kaiju movie. Cloverfield brilliantly combines the large-scale destruction of a giant monster ravaging a city with the intimate, immediate thrills of a found footage movie. Throw in some brilliant viral marketing and the idea that you’re watching a tape recovered by the government after a disaster, and you’ve got an addictive little movie that spawned a small franchise.

4. Chronicle (2012)

Given enough time, every film genre will be invaded in some way or another by found footage, because the method is just so adaptable. That meant superhero films would definitely get the treatment one day, and in 2012 we got it with Chronicle, Josh Trank’s tale of three friends whose lives change forever when they acquire superpowers. The film works right away because of course the first thing a certain kind of teenager would do if they got powers is film themselves goofing off. And as the plot picks up steam, the ways in which each young man deals with the fallout of their gifts propels it to compelling levels of intensity and fun.

5. [REC] (2007)

The best found footage films are often the ones that can make optimal use of a single location by establishing a sense of place and then just shredding your nerves as you watch the chosen location fall apart amid the terror. The Spanish film [REC], co-directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, is a masterclass in this technique, following a reporter and cameraman as they try to survive a night in a quarantined apartment building where everyone is slowly turning into a monster. The film just keeps finding ways to freak you out, from the silhouette of a motionless little girl at the end of a hallway to its iconic, absolutely terrifying final shot.

6. The Visit (2015)

In 2015, M. Night Shyamalan’s three most recent directorial credits were After Earth, The Last Airbender, and The Happening. The man who had once wowed Hollywood with The Sixth Sense needed another win, and he got one by stripping down his budget and his storytelling scope to create another intimate, taut, darkly funny thriller about two kids who go to stay with their grandparents and discover something awful. The found footage element of the story adds a sense of urgency to the detective work the kids have to do to figure out what’s going on, and the very idea of following the camera as it peers out of the kids’ room at night to see what the creepy people in the house are up to is enough to make you jump in your seat.

7. Creep (2015)

Creep is what happens when found footage horror meets a mumblecore hangout movie, as Mark Duplass (co-writer and star) and Patrick Brice (co-writer, director, and star) set out to tell a two-person story that will chill you to your core while also causing you to laugh at really odd times. The setup is simple: A creepy loner who lives in the woods hires a cameraman for the day under the pretense of making a video for his unborn. He has terminal brain cancer, you see, and wants to leave him some kind of remembrance. You can probably see where this is going just from the title of the film, but what you can’t see is how the film gets there. Creep packs a lot of scares, twists, and turns into its lean 77-minute runtime, and by the end it ensures you’ll be looking at that one guy you barely know who just has a “weird sense of humor” a little differently.

8. Trollhunter (2010)

Shows about weird guys who hang out in the woods and claim to hunt monsters have, like ghost hunting shows, become a staple of 21st-century cable television, and it was only a matter of time before someone decided to ask the question “What if that all turned out to be real?” Trollhunter, André Øvredal’s brilliant found footage fantasy film, does that with a sense of scale and wild fun that makes it an instantly watchable ride.

9. Paranormal Activity (2007)

Like The Blair Witch Project before it, Paranormal Activity came along at exactly the right time and injected new life into the found footage subgenre with a clever premise, a low budget, and a hook that kept driving people to the theaters. As ghost hunting shows began to spread all over basic cable, filmmaker Oren Peli had the idea to tell the story of a couple who wired up their own house with cameras in order to conduct a search for an evil presence in their home. It was a phenomenon that launched a franchise and dozens of ripoffs, and the scares still work pretty damn well.

10. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Ok, hear us out: Yes, Exit Through the Gift Shop is billed as a documentary, and is purportedly not a work of fiction. No one found this footage in the woods in the world of the story, so how can it be “found footage”? Because the legendary street artist Banksy found a movie in the midst of thousands of hours of random, often useless footage compiled by a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash), who became obsessed with street art and turned his constantly filming camera lens on it. Banksy didn’t set out to make this film, but as he became more intrigued by Thierry and his journey he turned to Guetta’s lifelong habit of compiling video of almost literally everything he did, and somewhere in there a truly great film emerged (the movie earned a Best Documentary Oscar nomination in 2011).

11. Unfriended (2014)

Unfriended is a film that unfolds almost entirely on a computer screen, as a group of friends slowly discover that the unknown user intruding on their evening chat might just be the ghost of a girl who was cyberbullied into suicide a year earlier and now wants to take her revenge. You’d think a film that unfolds through Skype chats and Facebook Messenger might drag a bit, but Unfriended actually has a healthy and horrific grasp of the way teens use these tools to construct their own compelling high school narratives, and it warps that understanding to its advantage. A film like this was bound to get made eventually, but Unfriended turns out to be more than another found footage gimmick.

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