- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

Ah, January, the time for making New Year’s resolutions to eat right and exercise more. For many, that means joining a gym. It also means committing a faux pas or two while learning to navigate the free-weight section, the cardio deck or even the locker room.

Exercise newbies can be easy to spot — not only does their form need correction, often times they could use a crash course in gym etiquette. Most gyms have dozens of unwritten rules, from what constitutes violating someone’s space to the correct way to put a weight back when you finish lifting.

It’s not just neophytes who break the rules, says Mitch Batkin, director of fitness for Sport & Health Clubs, a local chain of gyms. Mr. Batkin sees plenty of experienced but rude gym-goers.

The No. 1 etiquette breech — and one of simplest to remedy, Mr. Batkin says — is not cleaning up after oneself. Exercisers always should carry a towel and wipe up the machine (cardio or weights) after using it. No one wants to sit in someone else’s sweat.

“Obviously, people are sweating,” he says. “The No. 1 thing people get mad about at the gym is when you don’t wipe up where you were.”

A well-run gym should make it easy for members to keep things clean, says Brooke Correia, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

“Any good club will have materials at hand such as sprays, wipes and towels to clean up the machines,” she says.

Fabio Comana, a California exercise physiologist and a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, a professional group, says one of his pet peeves is weight lifters not returning the plates (in the case of free weights) or pins (in the case of machines) to the level or place where they found them.

Weights left haphazardly on the floor pose a safety issue. Pins left in, say, a bench-press machine at 200 pounds will be a waste of time — not to mention dangerous — to a 110-pound woman who tries to use the machine next.

“Leaving [weights] on the floor is not how you would live in your own home,” Mr. Comana says. “Just because you are at the gym, it does not absolve you of responsibility. I have actually gone up to guys and said to them, ‘Are you going to rack that?’”

Talk too much?

Something else to avoid in the gym: talking on your cellular phone. Sure, everyone has one and even may want to keep it nearby while working out. If you use it too often on the gym floor, though, expect dirty looks or even complaints. Being forced to listen to someone’s loud conversation is distracting and annoying, Mr. Batkin says.

“Working out should be a time of releasing stress, not adding more,” he says, “and if you are always on the phone, you are not getting a good workout.”

Some gyms have banned phones in the workout space — as well as in the locker room, where camera phones have invaded people’s privacy.

“If people are going to bring their phones, they should set them on vibrate,” Mr. Batkin says.

Then there are those who go to the gym to talk to others as part of their workout. One tip from the trainers: Don’t linger on a piece of equipment to talk to friends if you are finished using it. Step off if you want to keep talking; that way you are not slowing down the person who wants to use the machine next.

The gym can offer a tremendous social opportunity, Mr. Comana says. However, some people want to focus on exercise. Wearing headphones can indicate that you do not want to talk right now, but some people are slow to get the message.

“We should respect if people just don’t want to talk,” he says.

If you are trying to get out of a conversation and back to bicep curls, it is perfectly acceptable to make that clear to others, he says.

“It is OK to say, ‘Nice talking to you … but I’ve really got to concentrate,’” Mr. Comana says.

Monica Russ works out at Reston Sport & Health Club. The 43-year-old homemaker pays a fee to be in a training group, which provides instruction as well as camaraderie. However, she gets weary of some of her cohorts who “never stop talking.”

“I just think if the trainer is having us do something, how can you talk to someone at the same time?” she says.

Every gym also has a few amateur experts. You have seen them: the well-muscled guys who probably do know a lot about exercise and are willing to offer it up to anyone they deem to be in need (but usually an attractive young woman).

Even if the exerciser knows her form is wrong, that doesn’t mean she wants advice from the Incredible Hulk.

“It is OK to say, ‘I really don’t want advice,’” Mr. Batkin says. “If you really are doing it wrong, one of our trainers should see that and will offer you professional advice.”

Privacy, please

The gym is an unusual place because it is where public and personal collide. People are in various stages of dress, from skimpy workout clothes to, well, being naked in the locker room.

Rule of the room: Don’t try to engage in conversation when you or anyone else is undressed.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have had people come up to me in the locker room and try and talk,” Mr. Comana says. “I just tell them to meet me out on the floor after we are dressed.”

Many locker rooms have private changing rooms, and self-conscious types should scout them out, Ms. Correia says.

Even if there are no private changing spaces, just bring enough towels to make sure you are covered if you are the modest type. Keep in mind, however, that many gym-goers are not so modest. In fact, some can lean toward exhibitionist. Gyms can’t very well make rules about how undressed you can be in a dressing room; it’s something that goes with the territory.

One 47-year-old Loudoun County woman who did not want her name used for privacy reasons says she has been working out for two decades. She prefers to cover up in the locker room and says she will never get used to those who parade around the room undressed.

“That’s something that really bothers me,” she says. “I mean, I’m washing my hands at the sink, and there are breasts next to me. Can’t you put a towel around you?”

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