Fit For Life
Forget the stairmaster-turned-sculpture in your bedroom, it’s not working for you. These health clubs will. Ready to get buff?
By Dave Donelson Photography by Chris Ware
You may not need to lose 30 pounds, but odds are that a little fitness and toning are on your agenda. If so, Westchester offers a number of places and ways to get fit, look great and feel good about yourself. Personally needing to do all three, I toured a number of health clubs and talked to a variety of fitness experts to see just what options are available.
value and variety
When people visualize a health club, many imagine something like New York Sports Club (NYSC), where a bustling crowd of fitness devotees run for miles on lines of treadmills, pump tons of clanging iron on space-age weight machines and dance away the pounds in high-stepping aerobic classes. That is a pretty accurate picture. In White Plains, which is one of five NYSC locations in the county, there is also a pool, massage room and a specially designed quiet studio for yoga.
“You don’t ever need to use the same piece of equipment,” says District Manager Karen Randazzo. “You don’t ever need to do the same exercise. People who do group classes will be members for years and years and years. They take different classes with different instructors, and they have a different experience every time they come into the facility.”
XpressLine is new at NYSC. It’s a trainer-supervised, eight-station circuit workout designed to give you a comprehensive strength workout in 22 minutes. Add 30 minutes on a cardio machine, and you’ve done it all during your lunch hour. Monthly memberships at NYSC are $80.
calling all adults
The Burke Adult Fitness Center is the exact opposite of New York Sports Club and proves that there’s a health club experience that’s right for everyone. When the venerable Burke Rehabilitation Hospital was planning to open the center on its stately campus in White Plains, the management listened to focus groups who said that they wanted to have a club where they wouldn’t be surrounded by a bunch of people in spandex and blaring music. As John O’Connor, the director of the Community Wellness Programs, explains, “We wanted it to be for that person who really needs to exercise for health benefits.”
The well-equipped fitness center has all the cardio- and strength-training machines you’d find elsewhere, but the machines are in a totally different environment from your typical gym—there are lots of windows and few mirrors, quieter music, nice dÃ©cor (brick walls, scenic pictures on the walls, wallpaper) and easy parking. In other words, it’s a health club designed for the sensibilities of the mature member. Minimum age for membership is 45, and the Center attracts many people who have never exercised. Clair Sommer, who lives in White Plains and gives her age as “65-plus,” works out at Burke three times a week. “I joined when it first opened,” she says. “It certainly keeps your body in good condition.”
Says O’Connor, “Between ages 50 and 65, if you don’t get enough physical activity, you lose a certain amount of functional ability. You don’t realize it until it’s almost gone.”
Each of the Center’s 10 trainers holds a degree in an exercise science, according to O’Connor, and almost all are certified fitness instructors. One of the trainers is also a nutritionist, and therapists and doctors from the hospital are available as well, thanks to the hospital’s various physical therapy programs. In addition to exercise, the Center offers wellness classes like “Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight” and “Osteoporosis Awareness,” as well as yoga and tai-chi.
For inspiration, check out the period photos of early Burke “members” in bloomers and knickers practicing see-saw techniques and group calisthenics. The photos were taken when the hospital was founded around the year 1915. Today, monthly membership in the Burke Adult Fitness Center is $80 after a $75 enrollment fee, although a couple can join for $115 per month.
bodies by design
Equinox Fitness gleams. From the fresh cut flowers and designer fixtures in the locker rooms to the rows of race-ready stationary bikes in the spinning studio, the Scarsdale club screams “fitness chic.”
Membership Manager Martha Kaplan says Westchester and Equinox go together like Italian tile and eucalyptus saunas. “People are very aware of health and fitness here,” she says. “They’re more involved with being fit than most people elsewhere.” And, she notes, “they have the income to spend on fitness.”
Equinox is known for its group fitness classes, which Fitness Magazine has called the best in the country. Every studio is full of fitness toys like the springy hoops that fit between your knees for Pilates Plus; bright red, yellow and blue balls and half spheres for balance and core (abdominals and lower back) training; and foam shapes known as body wedges that you use for exercise—not reading in bed. In addition to spinning and kickboxing, the club offers 22 yoga-based classes and urban rebounding, which is adults on trampolines—big fun! Walking through one sprung-wood floor studio, I saw a drum full of what looked like six-foot-long bats. Kaplan explained that those weren’t stickball bats for really tall people but, rather, the equipment used for BalleCore classes, which, she said, combine Pilates, Hatha yoga and ballet to increase flexibility and abdominal and back strength.
Kaplan, who is a biathlete, teaches spinning classes—a tough workout. “It’s a simulated guided journey on a bicycle set to music,” she explains. “It’s a great cardiovascular workout. Excellent training.”
Then there is the Equinox spa, where the metrosexual may have been born. Stress, aging and the toxins of daily life are banished with the latest face and body treatments lovingly administered by accommodating aestheticians and therapists. After the Equinox trainers beat you up, the therapists make it all better.
Equinox personal trainers undergo a minimum of 30 hours of course work at the club’s own training institute, in addition to certification by at least one national organization. If you hire a trainer, you can choose from three levels of expertise, depending on the amount of course work completed. Monthly club memberships range from $99 to $143).
fitness and fun
Nobody, it seems, has more fun with fitness than the ladies at Curves. When I stopped by the store-front club on Virginia Road in North White Plains, a half-dozen women were gathered in a circle dancing in place, pumping on strength machines and laughing and carrying on with an instructor who was having as much fun as they were. No one in the room had the grim, straining face of a lonely athlete. Which is the idea, of course.
“There isn’t any kind of physical competition,” says owner Patricia Hoffman. “It’s not a fashion show. There are no men.” Hoffman and her husband, John, own the Curves franchises in North White Plains and New Rochelle. There are at least 15 others in the county and some 7,000 worldwide.
The Curves concept is as simple as tying your sneakers. You take your place in the circle at one of the simple machines, pump it as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds, then move on to a recovery space where you maintain your heartrate in whatever way you want—dance, jog, hop to the music. The hydraulic machines alternate upper and lower body strength training with a “recovery station” in-between. You work on the circuit for 24 to 27 minutes, then stretch for the remainder of the 30 minute workout. Once you go through the circuit, you’ve worked on every major muscle group in the body—and, presumably, had a good time doing it.
Roberta Graham of Greenburgh, a nurse and central supply manager at White Plains Hospital, comes in three or four times a week after work to, as she puts it, “relieve the tension and stress I experince all through the day.” Graham points out, “It’s 30 minutes that really makes me feel good.”
During the Curves workout, Hoffman says, you’re building lean muscles. “You’re putting stress on bones and joints, which strengthens them, and you’re getting this kind of mental health benefit from the endorphins.” During the workout I watched, the endorphins were knee-deep.
Walking into Curves is like stepping onto a non-stop fitness carousel. The music runs constantly as a pleasant recorded voice tells participants to “change stations” every 30 seconds. Monthly memberships begin at $39 plus a one-time service fee. (Another women-only fitness club is the Lady of America Fitness and Day Spa in the White Plains Mall, offering cardio and strength-training equipment, spinning classes, yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, salsa classes, childcare plus spa treatments.)
center of attention
The ultimate personal fitness experience in Westchester may be at Altheus. Dr. Tom Crawford opened the center in Rye a year and a half ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream nurtured through 20 years in the health and sports industries which included a stint as director of coaching for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“I was lucky enough to have a job where I traveled all over the world for 10 years to study training models, trying to find the best ones for the U.S. Olympic Committee,” Crawford says.
The Altheus experience begins with an interview where your medical history is taken and your goals set. This is followed by a physical evaluation that can take two hours and includes a VO2 test (which measures lung efficiency) and digital postural analysis. Then you spend an hour with a psychologist and an hour with a nutritionist. The result is a program that combines one-on-one coached workouts, nutrition counseling, massage therapy, sport exercise psychology and anything else the team thinks will enhance your health and performance.
It’s the team approach that makes the difference, according to 40-year-old Terry Tolley of Rye, who is working her way through her second 38-session program. “I really like that there’s this team here rooting for me,” she says. “Even though they all have very different approaches, they all ultimately push me in the right direction. And, because they all have different approaches, it keeps it extremely interesting.”
Team members include Barbara Miller, who you may have seen hosting fitness segments on ABC TV’s “Good Morning America”; Dr. Jonathan Katz, sports psychologist to many professional and amateur basketball, baseball and tennis players; and Dr. Karen Dolins, nutrition consultant to the New York Knicks and WNBA.
Tolley declares, “It’s very intense but I’ve seen incredible results. I look at myself and see an enormous change.”
Michael Quagliano of White Plains, the reigning Metropolitan Golf Association Junior Champion, works out at Altheus four days a week and swears by it. “I’ve seen pretty incredible improvement as far as strength goes. It’s definitely helping me hit the ball further.” A three-month, 38-session package costs $2,815.
back to basics
CourtSports in Elmsford (there’s one in Yonkers, too) is the epitome of a good, basic health club. Cardio and strength machines, a bunch of aerobic and body shaping classes, a few racquetball courts, childcare at least a few hours everyday, and a few saunas and steam rooms. Nothing fancy—but everything more or less is there. It’s a social place, too, with a comfortable conversation area outside the main fitness center where members congregate to rest, drink coffee and swap words of encouragement.
General Manager Jason Clerke points out that one of the club’s major missions is to overcome the inherent boredom that haunts most fitness routines. “The thing we really try to do is provide variety and have the right type of staff,” he says. “We look for people who care about people, people who care about fitness.” People like, Clerke says, Fitness Director Mary Silvestro, who has been with the club for 20 years.
CourtSports has added a healthy back program built around MedX, which strengthens and relieves pain in the lower back. Eighty percent of Americans have experienced back problems, according to Clerke, but they don’t have to. “I ran this program in Poughkeepsie,” he says, “and in four and a half years and more than a thousand patients treated, we had over a 90 percent success rate.”
It sounded too good to be true to me, especially since I underwent back surgery a few years ago, so I volunteered for a demonstration. Clerke seated me in a Volkswagen-sized machine and fastened a six-inch-wide belt across my upper thighs. I put my feet on a platform that pushed my hips back against the seat, then he cranked down a brace to stabilize my legs just above the knees and told me to bend over. Since my hips were frozen in place, all of the work was done by the muscles in my lower back, which responded surprisingly well.
CourtSports’ “Weigh To Lose” is a 12-week program of nutritional consulting and exercise that promises safe weight loss. A personal guard for your refrigerator is not part of the package, but two sessions per week with a personal trainer are included. Bi-weekly membership in CourtSports is $38.
friends and family
Five-year-old Wyatt Khosrowshahi was the first member I met at Club Fit in Briarcliff Manor. He was in the children’s wing of the family-oriented club, diligently trying to rip an industrial-strength Nintendo station off the wall, when his mother, Chandler, interrupted to take him to the pool for his swimming lesson. As I followed them to the other end of the expansive club, I watched Wyatt greeting friendly staffers and members like a junior Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Club Fit is a full-service family facility with a sister club in Jefferson Valley. “I love that it’s all under one roof,” Wyatt’s mother says. “Swimming, tennis, soccer, dance, creative movement, all the classes—I would be driving all over Westchester to get it all.” If she didn’t live there already, she says, “I would move to Briarcliff just for Club Fit.”
It’s a big, big place that offers almost every kind of fitness experience you can imagine.
At the opposite end of the building from the children’s wing, a walk long enough to give you a cardio workout all by itself, is the aquatic center facility, which includes a 75-foot lap pool, a raised whirlpool and a large program pool with warmer water and a zero entry shallow area. In the summer, there’s an outdoor patio, too. In addition to individual and group swim lessons and the competitive swimming program, there is also a large water-phobia group, designed to help people of all ages overcome their fear of water. In addition, the pool is fully handicap accessible.
There’s not just a childcare room at Club Fit, there’s an entire children’s wing, complete with a kids’ gym that has many of the same features as an adult gym, including a suspended floor, although the basketball hoops are only eight feet high. There’s a schedule of fitness classes for kids age two and up, just like there is for adults. There’s a “hangout” area, a childcare room for toddlers and a separate nursery for babies. Even the cafÃ© has a separate children’s area.
There is tennis on two indoor and seven outdoor courts where Ossining native Jenna Loeb, a three-time New York State tennis champ, got her start. There are also more than 120 pieces of cardio equipment spread through three rooms, including one that’s quieter and has no music playing. It’s also one of the few places in the county with an indoor track for everyone from runners to moms with strollers. You can do your strength training on free weights or machines using all the available technologies, and there’s a private weightlifting area devoted to women members along with a fitness program for junior members age 12 to 16 years.
General Manager Diane Pulleyblank points out that Club Fit is meeting a serious need: “Take a look at our population right now. We’re growing bigger every day.” The average woman in America, she says, wears a size 14, which is equal to what used to be a size 16 five years ago. If Alan Greenspan ran the economy that way, we’d be paying two dollars for a “gallon” of gasoline that would fit in a quart jug.
On the way home from my tour of the club, I saw the Chocolate Chalet at the intersection of route 9A and North State Road but virtuously resisted the temptation to go in.
Triathlete Joshua Gold, who offers personal coaching in swimming, running and biking at his own facility in Peekskill, Push Hard Multisport (914-734-7194; www.pushhard.com), says Club Fit’s classes are the best in the area. Monthly family memberships in Briarcliff run $277, slightly less in Jefferson Valley.
famous friends and family
The Saw Mill Club is where local celebs can be spotted—sweating. It’s also where personal attention is key, according to General Manager Kevin Kane. “Sixty percent of people drop out before 90 days if there’s not some sort of guidance or social connection.” And good role models, it seems.
The Saw Mill Club, which has a staff of 250, has many famous role models you might recognize, including designer Joseph Abboud, movie star Lena Olin, international financier George Soros and actor Stephen Lang.
Top trainers like Helen Ansari (former Miss Black America and a breast cancer survivor) and Herman Walker (his Airobix workout has been featured on local TV) are part of the Saw Mill Club’s draw, too. Individual monthly membership is $139; couples $247, and family memberships $277.
It’s hard to imagine a pret-tier—or more remote—location for a gym than that of the Hardscrabble Club, straddling the North Salem/Brewster border in the middle of horse country. But that’s a cause for celebration for northern Westchesterites who can work in a tennis game or workout without schlepping to Mt. Kisco or Yorktown. Indeed, a number of former Saw Mill members have defected because the Hardscrabble Club location is so convenient. “It’s almost like having a home gym,” enthuses Dana Ramos of Waccabuc, a former Saw Mill member. The club has beautiful slate floors in the lobby and there is an inviting lounge and cafÃ© overlooking the tennis courts, which are a main draw. Indoors, there are four clay courts and three hard courts; outdoors, there are four clay courts and two grass courts.
The club is a work in progress: A mini-basketball court, two squash courts and an additional exercise room are nearing completion and a 25-meter pool and indoor track are planned additions. Full membership ranges from $98 for a single to $220 for families; fitness only memberships range from
$85 to $147.
With about 75 fitness centers, gyms and health clubs in Westchester, not to mention countless personal trainers waiting to push and pull you into shape, there’s almost no excuse for showing up at the beach in a shoulder-to-ankle muumuu next year. As personal trainer Michael Wohltmann of Ryle Personal Training says, “Looking good is feeling good.”
Dave Donelson joined a health club last year after a lifetime of conscientious sloth. His fitness goal is to one day spot his own abs.