NYC gyms a new cell phone battleground

Girl texting while using gym equipment. (iStock) Photo Credit: Girl texting while using gym equipment. (iStock)


Girl texting while using gym equipment. (iStock)
Girl texting while using gym equipment. (iStock) Photo Credit: Jennifer S. Altman

Is your New Year’s resolution to finally join a gym?

The gym you join may be a battleground over cellular activity, as some patrons tote phones to the floor texting, yakking, and grunting back to bellowed exhortations – unmediated by headphones – of virtual trainers on their iPads. These behaviors tend to annoy time-pressed exercise purists who resent waiting for equipment occupied by endlessly-active communicators.

Gyms have encouraged the incursion of technology on what was once a sacred fitness space by pumping in loud music, installing cardio equipment with ports and TV screens, and boasting free Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the premises. Meanwhile, an increasing number of fitness apps are accessed via mobile devices.

So is it any wonder that the seated rowers and weight lifting benches sometimes serve as a roost for patrons primarily working out their thumbs as they text?

The issue of what exactly the gym is for has erupted on social media in the form of unflattering pictures of people texting and taking selfies while on equipment – posted, presumably, by other annoyed members who brought their cell phones along to document the #gymfail.

Jazz Biancci, 35, the founder of Soulesque, a burlesque, salsa and jazz-influenced fitness movement, was recently miffed to encounter one woman yammering into her phone while on an adductor machine in one posh Wall Street gym.

Biancci then went to the seated rower only to find someone sitting on it texting away. While the phone-user allowed her to work in, he made it clear he resented her interruption.

Biancci, who lives in TriBeCa, understands the temptation to check messages on one’s phone­ – or tune into uplifting workout playlists – but resents patrons engaging in their digital addictions in areas where resources are limited and cooperation is needed.

“It’s disappointing to me,” that so many people “lack self-regulation skills” and monopolize equipment needed by others, Biancci said.

The rise of the gig economy combined with amenities offered to attract and keep members (Wi-Fi, smoothie bars, comfortable lobby seats) has resulted in many people treating their gym like a Starbucks or their private country club, Biancci continued.

Gyms, she said, “have become a second home” for freelancers and entrepreneurs who have no compunction about conscripting a public space for their private use, oblivious to the annoyance and inconvenience they cause, she said.

The behavior even extends to some personal trainers, who text on their phones while in the employ of their private clients, she said.

“’Always on’ mobile connectivity is changing the nature of public spaces,” and rewriting social norms concerning acceptable public behavior, according to a Pew Research Center report.

The survey, released in August 2015, reported that 77% of Americans found it “generally OK” to use a cellphone while walking down the street and 75% gave the behavior a go-ahead on public transportation.

While the researchers did not inquire as to whether respondents gave their blessing to use phones on gym floors, 5% said it was OK to use them in a movie theater and 4% said it was fine to use them in church or during a worship service.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, which has 250 member clubs in New York State, doesn’t track the cell phone policies of member gyms, but does offer guidelines: IHRSA suggests that all gyms adopt a cell phone policy, promulgate the policy via signs, handbooks and in membership contracts.

It encourages member clubs to prohibit their members from taking or making calls while exercising or on equipment as a safety and courtesy measure.

The trade member organization also urges members to ban the use of camera phones “at least in locker rooms” as gyms are obligated to protect the privacy of their members, and, some might argue, not to abet the proliferation of public shaming of people on social media with risqué or unflattering shots taken on their premises.

Policies – when they exist – vary widely, so it might be wise to make sure the policy of the gym you want to join jibes with your own preferences.

Planet Fitness requires all cell phone conversations to be restricted to the lobby, but members may use their cellphones throughout the club, though headphones must be worn while listening to music.

Some Planet Fitness Clubs offer free Wi-Fi “which members can access on their smart phones,” Becky Brown, public relations manager for Planet Fitness, said in a statement. But “it is prohibited at all times to use cameras, video, or any other type of recording equipment within all club areas,” she noted.

“We want our members to enjoy the ‘Judgement Free Zone’ – whether that means listening to music via headphones, texting, checking email, watching videos, etc.,” Brown said.

The posh Mercedes Club, an “urban fitness oasis” on Manhattan’s far west side, takes a harder line against distractions. Cell phone use is not permitted in the locker room, group exercise classes or on the gym floor.

But Mercedes members “are often found working on their laptops from our cafe or lounge areas,” said Tonya Jacobs, chief operating officer. Most members resent users who are not mindful while “occupying equipment whilst on their PDAs,” so that is not allowed, Jacobs explained.

“People occupying equipment and texting,” in violation of club rules has occurred on occasion, she said, and “our staff address this as we encounter it.”

While many ad hoc fitness and yoga classes throughout the city also enforce a “no cell phone” rule – policing is sometimes a challenge.

“People will pull their cell phones out in the middle of a class” to see and send texts, distracting other pedalers, said James Pelton, a spin and Pilates teacher who lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Felton has an adamant “no phones” policy in the classes he teaches at 24-hour Fitness. “I get off the bike and call them (violators) out in front of everybody: ‘No phones in class!’” He makes exceptions for people using cardiac monitors connected to their mobile technology.

Many gyms are too lax when it comes to enforcement, Pelton believes.

“You can set all the rules you want, but you need on site supervision to enforce them … You see people texting while they’re lifting weights or on the treadmill!”

And “everybody wants to share their music with the world,” sighed Pelton, who is additionally peeved by people playing for all to hear in the locker room.

The conflict in some ways is a rift between serious fitness buffs and dilettantes.

“People do not achieve optimum results from workouts” when engaged with their cell phones, said Jerry Lynch, a sports psychologist and exercise consultant who lives between Santa Cruz, Ca. and Boulder, Colorado.

Truly concentrating on one’s workout gets you “to that sacred space – what I call the inner zone, where it’s just you and your body working in harmony,” that allows for maximum benefit and muscle development, he said. “The more consistent and the more focused you are, the more you get out of it. … A lot of people are kidding themselves,” as to the benefits derived from a listless exercise session punctuated with texts and scribbling on social media, Lynch said.

However, he qualified, some people who are addicted to their phones “wouldn’t be working out at all,” without a digital distraction. “They’ll get some cardiovascular development, some blood flow to the muscles and some relaxation,” but their muscles will “not get what they’re craving,” to improve, he said.

“I’m guilty! I’m the person on the phone in the gym,” confessed Trae Williams, 34, an Upper West Sider who works as a personal assistant to a celebrity who lives in his neighborhood.

What’s so important? His job is extremely demanding and requires constant triage and input as he juggles requests from publicists, managers, his boss and his own assistant, he explained.

“It’s bad. I owe myself an hour” of disconnection, said Williams, who takes his phone to the bathroom, but he just can’t figure out how to get even a few minutes. But “I try to be mindful. I complete my set,” before checking for messages, and “I never” monopolize equipment while someone is waiting for it, he said.

If cellphone addiction gets any worse in the culture, Pelton said he will consider teaching his spin and Pilate’s classes via an app that could be accessed on a cell phone’s tiny screen.

“I’d get more done,” and perhaps, he said with a rueful laugh, his students would finally be fully engaged in their exercise class.

Sheila Anne Feeney