Primetime at the Adrian C. “Ace” Israel Fitness Center resembles a scene from a science fiction novel: man merged with machine, stubborn muscle pushing stubborn pedal. Bodies running, but getting nowhere.
A steady hum echoes into the fourth floor hallway of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. It’s 4:30 p.m., and the floor is transformed into a sea of undulating arms and legs. Amid the clatter of weights and the rush of heavy breathing, the California wildfires blaze on the television sets. The people on the elliptical machines “run” with giant moon steps toward their reflections in the mirror.
All the treadmills and ellipticals and most of the bicycles are occupied. A few newcomers move like vultures from machine to machine, looking for a tired victim. Soon, a short line forms next to the water fountain.
Everyday, roughly 1,200 Yalies come to the “Ace” Israel Center to get their fitness fix. They stuff their bags into the cubbies, put on their headphones and attach themselves cog-like onto their machine of choice.
But the disembodied feel of the Fitness Center’s late-afternoon rush is deceptive. Camouflaged among the white T-shirts hide the true, the few — the “Fitness Junkies.”
Despite busy schedules, there exists a core group of students who manage to work out at the Fitness Center four to five times a week. For many of them, working out has become their primary extracurricular activity.
“At Yale, there are the extremes,” Andrea Maikovich ’05, who teaches an aerobics class on the fifth floor twice a week, said. “We get a lot of people who are very obsessive. If you go to the gym you see people who are there every day, way too long.”
A microcosmic social order has taken root in the Fitness Center. The hard-core fitness buffs generally segregate into two groups — the lifting-lovers stick to the weight room and the cardio-crazies plow away on the ellipticals and treadmills. People defend established niches, and symbiotic partnerships form and flourish.
In the weight section, the social order resembles the television show “Cheers,” with its distinctive regulars who come back again and again.
But in the weight section, everybody does not know your name.
“People you see at the gym usually have something you remember them for,” said Corey Morenz ’07, a Fitness Center regular who lifts five times a week.
During his hour and a half workouts, Morenz frequently sees the “Kid with the Crazy Sunglasses,” the “Big-Guy-with-the-Small-Head” and of course, “Crazy Towel Guy,” who covers his face with a towel while he lifts.
“We don’t know names, just personalities,” Morenz said.
Mike Gold ’04, another Fitness Center junkie, said he also sees the same people repeatedly. Gold, who used to run with Yale’s cross-country team, lifts four to five times a week. Gold said that lifting becomes addictive — the more you lift, the better you get, and the better you get, the more you like it.
Gold said he has also met good friends at the Fitness Center, and his gay friends like scoping out the sculpted bods.
“It’s a big gay pickup site,” he said. “Major gay culture in there.”
But at a school renowned for academics, Gold said he often has a hard time explaining his commitment to fellow students, who think he ought to spend that time improving his mind.
“For people who don’t do it, they consider it really vain,” he said. “But I consider it improving my mind. It really flushes the stress out.”
Larry Matthews, the associate director for Sports and Recreation Athletics, agrees that exercise benefits the mind. He said the philosophy of the gym can be summed up in the Greek credo, “A sound mind in a sound body.”
New machines are regularly added to the Fitness Center to keep up with demand and technology, Matthews said. Although ellipticals and treadmills are the most popular, Matthews said he maintains a diversity of machines in order to keep people from the boredom of repetition.
But even with the large number of available machines, territorial quibbles occasionally occur among weight room regulars.
Back in the weight section, Morenz walks away from his bench for a few minutes to spot his lifting buddy Pat Muha ’07, he returns to find Crazy Towel Guy lying on Morenz’s bench with a turquoise towel draped over the bar. Annoyed, Morenz tells Crazy Towel Guy to scram.
“This gym’s really bad for etiquette,” Morenz says. “Here you walk away, and people steal your stuff.”
Crazy Towel Guy eventually shuffles off, towel in hand, and Morenz, victorious, reclaims his bench.
Morenz and Muha have split up the week according to various parts of the body. Tuesdays they work arms, Wednesdays they strengthen shoulders, and Fridays are devoted to legs.
On Mondays — arms and chest day — Morenz warms up with a 135-pound bench press. Recently, he began training for powerlifting with a graduate student and said he hopes to work his way into the National Collegiate Powerlifting Championship. He and Muha keep notebooks to record their progress. So far, Morenz said he has been adding 10 pounds a week to his dead-lift.
“I just like getting stronger,” he said.
Although the populations of the cardio and the weight sections mix frequently, in general, the hard-core fitness enthusiasts stay on one side or the other. Neither Morenz nor Gold said they work out in the cardio area, across the open divide.
But the two areas differ in more than physical activity. Men make up the majority of the lifters, while the cardio machines are mostly occupied by women during the peak afternoon hours.
“There’s the cardio section and the weight section — the girl’s section and the guy’s section,” Gold said.
Azusa Ueno ’06 is one of the women who works out in the cardio area. Ueno never exercised before she arrived at Yale, but she said the cardio area has changed her lifestyle. Now she goes to the Fitness Center five times a week to run long distance on the treadmill.
“It’s become a really big deal for me,” she said. “After you’ve done it, it’s a really rewarding feeling.”
Ueno said running on the treadmill gave her the courage to join intramural cross-country, something she never would have considered in high school. She said she likes the cardio, in part because it allows her to splurge on the weekends.
“It takes away from the guilt when you go out partying,” she said. “It makes you really aware of how much you eat and how much you drink and makes you healthy.”
But Jennifer Scharf ’06 said she thinks too many girls do cardio workouts because they worry about their weight. In fact, Scharf — who plans to become a certified personal trainer in November — said lifting just two times a week can provide substantial benefit.
“Girls think, ‘If I do the elliptical for three hours a day, I’ll burn all these calories,'” she said. “When you wear that tank-top, you’ll still have flabby arms.”
Scharf, who is currently training for a bodybuilding competition in April, spent substantial time in the weight section last year but said she stopped going to the Fitness Center because she was unhappy with it. Now, she works out in her residential college weight room.
Scharf said she believes that girls feel self-conscious in the weight room with guys. She said she thinks more women would lift if they had their own weight room and their own orientation sessions.
“It’s pretty intimidating,” Scharf said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, I can see how you would want to just stay in the cardio section of the gym.”
House of Pain
The Athletics Department does offer a variety of orientation programs for the Fitness Center, Matthews said. In addition to eight weight-training orientations at the beginning of the year, students can enroll in a semester of weight-training classes or can hire one of three personal trainers through the Department. Matthews said he is also creating an orientation video cassette that students will be able to borrow from the gym.
“I see the Fitness Center [and] all the recreational facilities adding to the life of the Yale community,” he said. “I think this adds to what a student is looking for in terms of a Yale experience.”
But for the dedicated fitness enthusiasts, the “House of Payne,” as art history professor Vincent Scully has dubbed the gym, also becomes a house of fun.
“It is not for people who are self-conscious,” Gold said. “I like to scream a lot and go ‘uggh.’ I tend to have very little shame.”
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