health-club

‘That’s my space!’ When the gym looks like the wild kingdom

June 30, 2014 at 12:37 PM ET

Jostling for space in a crowded class can make people territorial.
Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images for Glamour
Jostling for space in a crowded class can make people territorial.

The line for the Saturday morning Zumba class at Washington Sports Club in Silver Spring, Maryland starts at 10:15 a.m. Sometimes 10:10. Women eye one another as they jostle for the closest spot to the door. The moment the previous class ends at 10:25 a.m., they’re through.

Anyone who’s ever attended a popular fitness class knows those early moments are key. If you can get into the first few rows and actually see the instructor, you’re golden. If you’re stuck in the back, well, good luck. You’ll be watching the backs of dozens of other people and a lot of them may not be getting the moves.

“I have seen people trample all over other people to get to the front,” says Wanda Bamberg Tia, who owns the Work It Studio in Washington, D.C. “The front row can’t hold but so many people."

But sometimes there’s a little more to it than just wanting a good view. It’s a lot about good manners — or in this case bad manners — but there is something about a health club or gym that crosses the boundaries between public space and private space.

In some ways a gym is like any other space that people frequent, says John Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida. “You see that when people go to a café and they sit at a particular table and want to own that table,” he said. “When people become extremely familiar with what they are doing, they can feel ownership of a particular space. It’s sort of public and it’s sort of private at the same time.”

Like the guy who just has to use the second exercise bike from the end, or the pair of friends who camp out in the free weights section, they feel entitled, Murray said.

"I think people are expecting a certain experience and they feel entitled to that experience," said Supie Shea, who teaches classes at several Washington, D.C. area clubs.

Bamberg Tia’s seen the full gamut of bad gym behavior.

“There was one lady who’d been coming to my classes for years, and she’d put her shoes down to mark ‘her’ space and then she’d go dress,” said Bamberg Tia. One day, another woman came in and she didn’t know those shoes were marking a space.

“So the lady came back and she saw her shoes had been moved and another lady was standing there. She asked her, ‘Why did you touch my shoes?’ The second lady, she wasn’t backing down and they kind of got in to it.” There was actually some physical contact — they elbowed one another — and Bamberg Tia had to intervene.

“I was very careful in my wording and being diplomatic,” she said.

Turf queen bees or equipment divas can be intimidating for class newbies. 

"It certainly can discourage people who are new to a gym or new to exercising in a gym," said John Raglin, a sports psychologist at the University of Indiana. "It's hard enough to start and maintain an exercise program—on average 50 percent of people who start will be gone within eight weeks—that these impediments can stop people in their tracks before they even get started."

Meri Kahan of Bethesda, Maryland says she sometimes feels intimidated even in classes she's been attending for years. "There's this unspoken language," she said.

Good instructors can take control and defuse the tensions. 

“We had these front-row divas that would just take over,” said Bamberg Tia. “Many times I have changed the class around, moved it, so that the front row is now in the back,” she said. “It’s like directing traffic,” she said.

Some crowded dance classes will start with the instructor telling participants to stretch out their arms to define their space. And Bamberg Tia often seeks out newcomers and assigns them a spot on the side of the class, where they can see her clearly but where they won’t annoy the old hands.

It’s often an exercise of power — like a driver who decides the person in his lane is going too slowly, and comes up just a little too close from behind. The gym equivalent: that dude who glares at you as you unwittingly puff away on ‘his’ elliptical machine. 

“If that were to happen, it’s appropriate to say, ‘Excuse me, I am going to be here for about another 10 minutes’,” said Murray.

Sometimes it’s about comfort, whether it’s carving out personal space or seeking out the air conditioning. Gail Sander, who teaches a variety of classes in Bethesda, Maryland, says some people race to be away from the fans, while others hide in the back row because they don’t feel like they are very good.

“You definitely have people who go to the same spot,” Sander said. “There’s no doubt it’s because they are more comfortable there."

Kahan said she recently stood in a space usually occupied by the "queen bee" of one of her classes. "I knew she wasn't there, so I could stand there," she said.

Then there’s the rude behavior that may look clueless on the surface, but which can be about power and territory, too — like using a cellphone in class or on the gym floor, or arriving late.

It’s the late arrivals who annoy Sander the most. “It is always the same people," she said. "They are always late. Even when it is a (Pilates) reformer class that they pay $35 a pop for, they are always late.”

Being late doesn't just irritate class members and the instructor. It can also distract people enough to cause an injury. 

“I had to move someone who came to the front of a step class and tried to put her bench down in the front of the room,” said Bamberg Tia. 

Most gyms ban cellphone use in common spaces, but people still break the rule. 

“People will have their cellphone right on their spinning bike,” said Sander. “I understand if you’re a doctor and you are on call, but everyone else can really take an hour off.”

And if you think those other people who seem so at home in the gym are looking you over they could be, Raglin said. 

"These are people that are physically imposing and often behave in ways that magnify this difference. They often are judgmental about people who don't look fit, don't know how to use equipment," he said.

The advice from just about everyone: relax and have a good time. “It’s supposed to be fun,” said Bamberg Tia.

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