LAST week Vicki Holland, an occupational therapist from Riverdale, raced to one of her regular Pilates classes at the New York Sports Club on 44th Street. Ms. Holland takes her fitness very seriously - she attends classes at least three times a week - so what came next was a rude surprise: for the first time in months, the class was full, and Ms. Holland was shut out. She said she knew what that meant: the winter gym blitz was on.
"It's really annoying," she said. "The instructor has to scale down the difficulty of the class for the beginners. Having to wait for a shower is annoying. I think all of you who are taking up space should just go away."
January is the month many Americans dedicate - or rededicate, or re-rededicate - to getting healthy. While in the heartland that might entail jogging around an indoor track or playing tennis at a roomy indoor racquet club, to many city dwellers it means crowded locker rooms, towel shortages, fighting for treadmill time and going elbow to furiously pumping elbow with strangers in dank rooms crammed with StairMasters. For New Yorkers the January gym blitz is the inverse of those first warm weeks of spring, when Central Park overflows with joggers and bikers, and the flowers are in bloom. And for the health club industry, it's a make or break time.
"It's the big month," said Bill Howland, a spokesman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade group. "Existing members say now it's time to get back. You combine that with people making New Year's resolutions, and you get an upsurge in traffic." Add cold weather to the mix, which drives the athletically minded indoors, Mr. Howland said, "and you have people bumping into each other."
For regular gymgoers, the sudden influx of the New Year's resolution crowd is akin to tourists mucking up the otherwise peaceful routines of an out-of-the-way vacation town. They may not wipe down the equipment just so, or adhere strictly enough to the time limits on the cardio machines. But like tourists, their chief crime seems to be simply being there.
"It's not very pleasant," said Stuart Hastie, a 32-year-old banker who typically rows for 40 minutes every day at lunchtime at the New York Sports Club on 44th Street. "They don't know the rules and regulations. They don't put the weights back."
Caprese Murray, 30, a personal trainer and professional body builder in Manhattan, said that among those in the fitness world there's a name for all those suddenly health-conscious types who start signing up for trainers and club memberships in January: "freshman meat."
"They all say the same thing, 'I want to tone up but I don't want to get too big,' " Mr. Murray said.
Veronica Ceballos, 24, is admittedly one of those newbies. She was wrestling with a thigh machine at the New York Sports Club on 14th Street in Manhattan on what she said was her first ever trip to a health club. Ms. Ceballos, who said she joined the club as part of a New Year's resolution to get in shape for a friend's wedding, said she had no idea what she was doing. She was waiting for a trainer to show her the ropes.
"Due to the rush there's a backlog," she said.
The health club industry tries all sorts of tricks to moderate gym traffic during the busy months, like staggering class schedules and offering cheaper off-peak memberships. But aware that the rush lasts only a few weeks, few clubs stop selling memberships on the basis of overcrowding, and most offer specials to lure in new members. New York Sports Club, for example, ran a $1 million sweepstakes promotion after the New Year, and Equinox Fitness Clubs is offering a $100 discount to people who take their "body age" test online.
Ed Ruane, a New York City regional director at Equinox, said his company begins preparing for the New Year's blitz in the fall, with a program it calls "January readiness." He said the clubs hire additional personnel, replenish their towel supplies and even post trainers on the floor of the clubs with walkie-talkies, to help them direct traffic toward open exercise machines.
"It becomes a real party," he said.
For those used to exercising outdoors, the packed urban health club can be a jarring experience. Hordes of panting athletes exhale clouds of warm moist air - mostly carbon dioxide - in the central spaces. The aquariumlike rooms where spinning classes take place can seem particularly off-putting to anyone who has ever taken a turn in the fresh mountain air. But Rick Caro, the president of Management Vision, a Manhattan consultant to health clubs, said that over the years health club designers have learned to work in concert with engineers to provide ample ventilation for even the most heavily trafficked gyms.
"They've really learned to move air properly," he said. "The heating and air-conditioning are much more powerful. In a bicycle studio there's a tremendous amount of air going through there."
At many urban health clubs, the real overcrowding problems occur away from the exercise equipment. "The neck of the funnel is always the locker room, " said Michael Motta, the president of Plus One, a fitness center design and management company based in Manhattan.
The issue is one of flow, he explained. If a class ends and a large number of people go to the locker room at once, some may end up waiting for the showers. Since people will leave the locker room once they've showered, Mr. Motta said, health clubs with space problems have learned to put a premium on installing showers over lockers to keep people moving through the system.
To save space in the locker areas, he added, many clubs use double-decker models, which, in a crowded locker room can create no end of social awkwardness, if, say, you're crouched in front of a lower locker and a nude member insists on getting to the one just overhead.
"The rule is, look at the wall," said Jeremy Hamburgh, a 22-year-old student at Benjamin N. Cardozo law school who has been going to the gym four or five times a week since August.
"I never did the high school athlete thing, so seeing a lot of guys naked is a new experience," he added. "I'd be weirded out if someone talked," he said.
Mr. Hamburgh added that he actually enjoyed the crowded atmosphere of health clubs in January. "There are a lot of people here, you can look at their physiques, and it gives you something to strive for," he said. "If I'm on the treadmill, and I've only done two miles and the guy next to me has five, I'm going to try harder."
One might think personal trainers would look forward eagerly to January and all those new clients looking to better themselves. But some trainers say such clients are notoriously unreliable.
"I don't take people who come to me with New Year's resolutions," said Anthony Dragos, 42, who has worked on his own as a personal trainer in Manhattan for the last 13 years. "It's a pain when you find these people who want to do it, but they don't really want to do it. They go two, three weeks, and they stop."
Mr. Dragos said he has even had new clients in January who paid for 20 sessions in advance, but only showed up for a couple before going AWOL.
"You call them up and they don't return your calls," he said. "How's that for weird?"
Mr. Dragos said in his experience, such a person is a health club's dream client. "Gym owners love that," he said. "They put their money down and don't use the gym."
Mr. Howland, the trade group spokesman, said that keeping members was difficult for clubs as well. In general, research has shown, only about half of the people who start exercise routines stick to them for more than six months. According to industry statistics, health clubs retain about 65 percent of their members on an annual basis. A 1998 study sponsored by the trade group found that overcrowding was the No. 1 reason people quit their clubs. Mr. Caro, the consultant, said that he was skeptical of that study - he said most people quit their health clubs because of a lack of motivation - but allowed that during the January and February rush, there was only so much a health club could do.
"It's a four-walled physical plant that can't expand to meet demand hour by hour," Mr. Caro said.
As unpleasant as an urban gym can be at this time of year, most regular gymgoers are content to stick to their routines, content in the knowledge that in a few short weeks, a lot of those newbies will lose their will, and health clubs will return to a less chaotic rhythm.
"It fades away in March," said Mr. Hastie, the banker, as he strapped himself into his rowing machine. "What can you do? Perspiration is inspiration."