Resolution Road

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the Baconator, I shall fear no gym.
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It’s tough to like the month of January, that dark, cold, gloomy time a friend of mine once called “the Sunday night of the year.” But come on, it’s also a time of hope, a clean slate upon which we annually scrawl our declarations of high purpose, renewing our attempts to lead better, healthier, more productive, more financially responsible lives.

At least until the end of January.

I’ve never been a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, preferring to settle for a Zen-like acceptance of all my bad habits rather than strive for some unattainable plateau of perfection. But for some reason, this year I’m feeling geared up to slim down and am eager to follow the marketing anthem that promises “New Year, New You.” I resolved to knock off 15 pounds, eat healthier, and get more exercise.

According to my research, I’m not alone. Losing weight is one of America’s most popular resolutions, along with getting a new job and reducing debt, which seem like nearly impossible goals in today’s economy. The same research also revealed that the majority of resolutions have crashed and burned by Valentine’s Day. Nevertheless, I’m determined. After reaching a certain age, we begin to see fitness as a health choice rather than an aesthetic one. And I’m ready for the challenge. Having grown up on the west side, I have lifelong experience in self-denial. Over here, we’re just crazy for that lifestyle.

We also tend to be hard workers. And that’s where my problem arises. Long days at the office don’t leave a lot of hours for making low-calorie meals or going to a gym. Like most people who have fallen off the fitness wagon, I want to climb aboard as quickly and painlessly as possible. If I can wedge fitness into an already packed schedule without shortchanging any other priorities, deal me in. But that isn’t as easy as I expected. A quick search of the phone book and the Internet reveals a staggering variety of options. There are so many fitness places within a short drive that not exercising requires a conscious choice. You have to hide your eyes and zoom past them on your way to your fast-food dinner.

Here on the west side, we have the usual lineup of chain places—Bally Total Fitness, Curves, Fitworks Fitness, Urban Active—as well as the Gamble-Nippert YMCA, the Western Sports Mall, and any number of independent fitness centers where an inspired west-sider can shape up. I never quite realized how many there are. I’m even more stunned by all the ways that shaping up can be done today. Let me put it another way: I’m more confused than when I started. No longer is an earnest fatty like me resigned to mind-numbing hours on a treadmill or bursts of repetitive-motion syndrome on a Nautilus machine. I can take classes in yoga (hot or regular, flowing or, I guess, un-flowing). And there’s tai chi or pilates or fit ball or fusion, which combines yoga and pilates. I can use a BOSU ball, Dyna-Bands, or Xertubes. I can either Jazzercise or aerobicise—or maybe those are the same thing.

I can opt for cross training, weight training, core training, spinning, body sculpting, kickboxing, wrestling, or Zumba—um—ing. There are even exercise classes in belly dancing and pole dancing, presumably for the gals who want to get fit and moonlight as strippers. Or I can sign up for a “body boot camp,” in which one pays to have an instructor scream like a drill sergeant, fulfilling everyone’s desire to add more stress and personal conflict to one’s daily routine.

A bit more research reveals that every type of fitness training offered at a couple of cool L.A. gyms can be found on ye olde west side. Not that I really need every method of cardio training available. What I really need is training training, a strict workout and diet regimen that will get me in good enough shape to go to one of these places with at least a modicum of confidence. Funny, I don’t see anyone offering that. Looks like I’m on my own.

RATHER THAN SORT through the clutter, I decide to start with, for lack of any other criteria, the place closest to where I live. I jump in the car and head for Herman’s Personal Training and FitnessCenter on Harrison Avenue in Cheviot. Sure, it’s close enough to walk there, but I respect the prudent approach of starting slowly.

The center is owned and run by Herman Keith, a 29-year-old Price Hill native who now lives in Western Hills. He has been a certified personal trainer for 10 years, a former body builder who started competing when he was 16. He’s a genial, soft-spoken guy with a placid demeanor, well built, as you’d expect, but (thankfully) free from that witless manic narcissism we also tend to expect from body-building personal trainers. He has an easy-going style and is willing to help.

In less than a minute, I recognize him from my days, five years ago, as a member of Bally Total Fitness on Werk Road. Along with my pal Mike, I’d head over there four or five days a week for a pre-crack-of-dawn workout on the elliptical and Nautilus machines. Herman would walk the floor, answering questions and dispensing advice and encouragement. I never worked with him personally, but I recall his relaxed attitude, which doesn’t seem to be the norm among the fiterati.

He opened his own place two years ago in a small storefront near the intersection of Harrison and Glenmore avenues, within dangerous proximity of a Wendy’s, where the siren song of the Baconator wafts seductively in the air. Compared to the big-box fitness factories, Herman’s gym is tiny. There are no plasma TVs on the walls, no thick carpeting, no pool, none of the luxurious amenities the chains offer to make your workout seem more like play. But Herman’s is packed to the rafters with weight machines and stationary bikes and dumbbells. More than enough, it seems, to whip me into shape. 

My first question, the one on every newbie’s mind: How long will it take?

Herman offers no easy solutions. “There’s really not a way to do it fast,” he says. “If you try it fast, you’re not going to enjoy it. It’s not a lifestyle change you’re going to want to stick to.”

So what’s the secret?

“The magic bullet that everyone is looking for is consistency. Do it slowly, and do something you like. Otherwise, you’re going to be miserable. You’re going to be hating life.”

All those people on the infomercials—the ones with the fast, fun, super-easy methods—must be lying. Who’d have thought?

Herman’s approach is to discuss a person’s lifestyle: what you eat, how you sleep, how much exercise you get in a normal week. From there, he outlines small changes that can be made—a little more exercise here, a lighter, healthier meal there.

“It’s a matter of taking baby steps,” he says. “Correcting the common mistakes people make. If you just start with something basic and stick to it, you’ll be surprised at the results you’ll see.”

The sticking to it part is where most people fail, he says. Like every gym in America, his center sees a rise in activity in January, as throngs of new optimists arrive eager to burn calories and build a beautiful body by spring. Most don’t make it through the winter. Herman says the average is around six weeks. “Once they realize it’s a lot harder than they thought it would be, they stop coming,” he says. “Their expectations were too high and their commitment to low.”

So what’s the secret to sustaining your resolve?

“The best advice is to work with someone you trust,” Herman says. “Set realistic goals and a realistic timeframe. Break it down into smaller goals you can achieve. Sure, you’ll have setbacks. Everybody does. You just have to stick to it.”

A week later, with those words echoing in my mind, I head for Herman’s gym at 10:15 on a Sunday morning for his thrice-weekly “boot camp.” This time, I’m walking. A chill wind whips my face as I trudge along the empty sidewalks, my feet crunching on a thin skin of ice. Thick, gray clouds sag low in the sky, and snow flurries dance in the cold air. 

All of which makes me feel really good.

The morning strikes the right note of self-abnegation that is truly one of the pleasures of a fitness program, a means of paying for my sins of profligacy and sloth. That old chestnut about “no pain, no gain,” speaks to a cornerstone principle of west side culture. Much of our famously stodgy, conservative reputation grows out of it. We revere humility and personal sacrifice. Reshaping yourself, after all, shouldn’t be easy. It should require a certain level of penance, an exercise version of the three “Hail Marys” the priest assigns at the end of confession. In other words, gain without pain just isn’t worth gaining. But I’m a little nervous about the boot camp itself, not sure what to expect or if I’m ready for it. Herman doesn’t seem to be the drill-sergeant type, but maybe he adopts that persona to feed the needs of people who want even more pain than I do.

At the gym, I’m joined by eight or nine fellow boot-campers in a wide spectrum of ages and shapes, nearly all of them women. They’re a friendly, welcoming bunch, introducing themselves and exuding a camaraderie that is, I have to admit, a relief.

Even better news: Herman does not yell. He wears his relaxed grin and asks how people are feeling. Throughout the small center, he has set up a challenging circuit-training course of exercise stations. Each person starts the course at a different station and moves onto the next in timed, one-minute intervals. Each station involves an activity, ranging from jumping rope to doing squats with light dumbbells, to pedaling stationary bikes. And then there are tricep dips, another bike to pedal, pushups, and lot of other stuff. Everyone does the loop twice in roughly half an hour.

The course is as challenging as you want it to be, and after attacking it on the first round, I back off a bit, pacing myself to get to the end without passing out in front of my new gang. Having worked up a good sweat, I head home, the air colder now that my hair is wet, and soon I’m walking very fast—another workout! I vow to be a regular member of the boot camp, at least for the next few weeks. There’s just something likable about Herman’s place. I think it’s Herman.

“Over the years, people have said I’m more down to earth than a lot of other trainers,” he said on my first visit. “I’ve always had a laid-back approach, making life-style changes. I was overweight growing up and I’ve been there. It’s easy for me to relate to what they’re going through.”

And he relates very well. Still, I’m curious to see how the other half sweats, the tonier—if not necessarily toned—crowd who may not even have to sweat to shed a few pounds and inches. I resolve to do a little more fitness recon.

FROM HERMAN’S COZY center I go to Western Tennis & Fitness Club on Muddy Creek Road in Western Hills. The 79,000-square-foot building sits high up at the crest of a hill, its fieldstone facade and handsome columned entrance holding out the promise that pounds will fall away simply by walking through the door. Opened in 1972 as The Western Racquet Club, the building was purchased in 2004 by Jim and Bobbie Farley, who have renovated and expanded the facilities. During my visit, the nine tennis courts buzz with young players competing in a college tournament. Players and parents relax on couches by a stone fireplace in a lounge or watch the matches from a glass-enclosed viewing area.

Having driven past it many times, I expect a certain country club attitude, wondering if I should have worn a sweater across my shoulders, the sleeves tied in front. Perhaps I should have rehearsed a bon mot or two about my lovely villa in St. Croix or a well-timed gripe about my battered stock portfolio. Lacking both villa and portfolio, I figure I’ll just bluff when necessary.

But I never have to. This is the west side, after all, and the place is as comfortable as a glove. The courts, the lounge with the two plasma televisions and stone fireplace, the little pro shop—all are first rate but I can’t find so much as a speck of pretension.

“We have a family friendly social atmosphere,” says Tricia Vorherr, the center’s director of sales and marketing. “Everybody knows each other. We’re sort of the Cheers of the west side. People come and have a good time and hang out. It’s not just a place where you go to do your 40 minutes of cardio and then leave.”

But you can do your cardio in an amazing number of ways. Zumba is the latest fad—call it Salsa-cize—and the club recently installed 11 new stationary bikes for the popular spinning classes. The fitness area includes a couple of large rooms for the cardio classes, as well as a retinue of treadmills and elliptical machines facing a bank of wall-mounted plasma TVs.  

I walk around freely, reading the flyers tacked on the bulletin boards proclaiming the joy to be had at the new and Zumba classes. I feel the familiar tug of that west side self-denial thing. Do I really want such rapture in my workout or does hunkering in the trenches of fitness combat seem somehow more comfortable, more realistic, more, in the end, rewarding?

I sit for a while in the viewing area and gaze down at the tennis matches being played, watching healthy college kids decked out in their team colors firing blistering volleys across the net and returning them with impossible ease. Between volleys they affect a certain aloof distraction, as if the match is neither particularly important nor taxing. Their friends and teammates pack the area, cracking wise and laughing, while munching snacks and sipping soda pop. It all seems so easy.

Later I speak to Jen Meiners, the center’s fitness director. She says that the center sees a rise in attendance in January but doesn’t suffer the sharp decline common at gyms when the newbies call it quits. “Our club is above average as far as fitness goes,” Jen says. “There’s a pick up after New Year’s, but typically 70 percent of those will stay on.”

The basic membership includes use of the fitness center and access to the groups and classes. Access to the tennis courts requires an additional fee. Tricia tells me that 60 percent of the members play tennis, and the courts draw people from beyond the Western Hills area. “We attract people from downtown, northern Kentucky, the Hyde Park area, all over,” she says.

Maybe that’s what’s bugging me. This place is certainly welcoming, and it’s an impressive facility. But with members coming from every side of town, I lose some of that connection to the work of working out. So I find myself heading back to Herman’s place. In fact, I find myself heading there several more times for boot camp. Each time it gets a little easier—a little. And I guess that’s how it’s supposed to work. For the resolution to stick, I need to commit to it for the entire year. But I try not to think about it. Herman offers three classes per week, and I focus only on making it to the next one. Sometimes I do, other times I don’t. But after a few classes, I’m walking to the center rather than driving. Then, heading home from a workout on a cold winter evening, I’m suddenly running. One step at a time.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Originally published in the January 2009 issue.

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