12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of the Gym

istock
istock

Gyms and the people who work for them have a nearly impossible mission. Think about it: First they have to get you in the door. Then they have to convince you to shell out money for a membership you almost certainly won’t use enough to justify its cost. Finally, they have to make you feel comfortable with the inherently uncomfortable situation of looking sweaty and disgusting in front of strangers. And yet somehow, they manage to do it.

Still, big-box gyms are having an identity crisis. Smaller studios catering to niche preferences are elbowing into their territory. More than 40 percent of gym members dump their full-service membership every year, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Meanwhile, boutique studios like SoulCycle or Pure Barre are the fastest-growing part of the fitness industry, leaving the chain gyms shaking in their boots. 

“All major chains are in major financial disruption,” says Thomas Plummer, author of How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry. “They know what they do is not working but many are afraid to go to the next step.” While they figure out their next move, here are a few behind-the-scenes insights into how the big gyms work. 

1. THEY COUNT ON YOU NOT SHOWING UP.

“If you are not going to the gym, you are actually the gym's best customer,” writes Planet Money’s Stacey Vanek Smith at NPR. Many big clubs make their money by recruiting as many members as possible, which ends up being far more than they can actually accommodate. So they’re banking on you slacking on your workout goals. According to Smith, Planet Fitness has about 6500 members per gym but can only hold about 300 people at a time, max. 

Kevin Fowler, who directs a relatively small 400-member gym in Mississippi, says “if I had all of them in here even just through the day we wouldn’t be able to keep up with everything. We want the memberships and we want them to pay but we don’t necessarily want them to all come at one time.” 

2. THEY PUT THE CARDIO EQUIPMENT WHERE YOU CAN SEE IT ...

It’s in the big box gyms’ best interest to attract people who want easier, less frequent workouts rather than those with serious fitness goals. One way to do this is by hiding the equipment to avoid intimidating potential new customers. “Instead of displaying challenging equipment like weight benches and climbing machines in plain view, gyms will often hide weight rooms and other equipment in the back,” writes Smith. 

If they show any equipment at all, it’s usually the cardio machines. Ellipticals are the most popular machines because they’re easy to use, but they’re arguably not very efficient at getting your heart rate up. “Sure, the gliding motion of the elliptical burns calories, but that’s about it,” says fitness guru Jennifer Cohen. “It is also easy to slack off on the elliptical.” And who do the big gyms want to attract? Slackers. 

3. ... AND THEY PACK IN AS MUCH EQUIPMENT AS POSSIBLE.

Many large franchise operations get a cut of whatever equipment their franchisees buy—so the more equipment a gym is required to have, the more money the parent company gets. Rudy Fabiano, an architect who designs gyms through his firm, Fabiano Designs, uses the example of Planet Fitness: “They get maybe 10 percent to 15 percent of that package and the typical Planet buys half a million worth of equipment if not more. That’s $75,000 in profits. So it’s a little self-serving.” 

4. THOSE SIGN-UP FEES? YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY THEM.

A lot of gyms have a one-time fee that comes with a new membership—and those fees are often negotiable. “The gym I worked at before this had a $200 sign-up fee, but I’m not sure anybody actually paid that $200 sign up fee,” Fowler says. Aside from extra money in the gym owner’s pocket, those fees exist mainly as a way of running promotions. If a gym wants to get a bunch of new members, it uses the rule of scarcity and drops the fee for a short amount of time to make new members feel like they're getting a bargain. 

If the only thing preventing you from signing up is that one-time fee, the salesperson will often lower the fee or skip it completely. They’re salespeople, after all, and they’d rather lose that fee and gain a year-long paying member than get nothing at all. “If that fee was a deal-breaker, I would wave it,” says Mo Hall, who spent six months doing membership sales at a fitness chain on Long Island. “If you say you’re not gonna pay it, they’re not gonna let you walk out the door.” 

Also, you’re more likely to get a bargain near the end of the month. “Salespeople work on commission,” one gym employee said on Reddit. “Therefore, they are much more likely to give you a better deal at the end of the month, when they may be below goal or getting a big commission from your sale.” 

5. GROUP EXERCISE RETAINS MEMBERS.

According to Plummer, fitness clubs lose about 50 percent of their members on a year-to-year basis. “In the past, club operators have resorted to fairly sleazy tactics to keep these people going, such as letting the members slip from a contractual obligation at the end of the first year into a month-to-month option with the hopes that he won’t notice and will just keep making those payments or just let the club keep drafting his credit card or checking account,” he writes in How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry. 

There’s no doubt many clubs still use shady practices to retain members (the Better Business Bureau received more than 6000 complaints about gyms last year, many citing such practices), but other clubs realize there’s an easier way to keep members: get them involved in group exercise like yoga, spin classes or kickboxing.

“I have seen group exercise become very attractive to a large number of people because it offers accountability,” says Jeff Presley, a fitness instructor in Kentucky. “If I don’t show up, people are gonna miss me. If I do, I’m gonna be challenged because I’m working out with other people.” 

According to a Nielsen Global Consumer Exercise survey, gym members who participate in group exercise stay longer and are more likely to recommend their gym to family and friends. 

“You wanna encourage people to interact,” Fabiano says. He incorporates areas for socialization into his gym designs, whether that’s in the lobby, outside the locker rooms, or even on staircases where people have a tendency to gather anyway: “Those social engagements become important in terms of why you would keep going back.” 

6. THE YOGA MATS ARE PROBABLY FILTHY. 

Nothing turns off a customer like filth, and most clubs are aware of this. “Dirty clubs cost you more female members than any other issue,” Plummer writes. He even recommends owners hire “ghost shoppers” to visit the gym and report back on cleanliness. At Hall’s gym, one of the biggest recurring complaints was the strong smell of bleach in the air. 

But, according to Kim, a former fitness instructor in Alabama, the yoga mats are bacteria breeding grounds: “Even if the gym cleans the equipment ‘regularly,’ the regular cleaning may have been a week ago. At our gym, the mats were cleaned once a week. Yuck. Someone else's bare feet and sweaty back has been on that mat.” 

7. YOUR INSTRUCTOR MIGHT NOT BE CERTIFIED. 

When Kim became a group fitness instructor, all that was required of her was a three-day training course. “Personally, I have no background in any kind of physical education, fitness, or health,” she says. “Don't get me wrong—we do genuinely care about helping you get in better shape and keeping you from injuring yourself, but just because I can show you how to do a move doesn't mean it's a good move for you to be doing. Remember that the contract you signed when you joined the gym almost certainly released both the facility and its employees from any liability at all if you get hurt.”

8. PERSONAL TRAINERS KNOW WAY MORE THAN THEY WANT TO ABOUT THEIR CLIENTS. 

“You’re also their life coach and psychologist,” Fowler says. “When they get to know you, they’ll start telling you a lot. They’ll open up to you about their family, their kids, even their bathroom situations. It’s fine with me. I just listen to them and that’s all they want I guess.” 

9. EVERYONE WANTS BETTER ABS.

“The most popular thing people want to know when they come in is how to lose their stomach,” Fowler says. “Probably 90 percent of the people who come in want to know how to lose their stomach. But I’m always the bad guy because I have to tell them you can’t just do sit ups.” 

10. THE SAUNA IS PRIME REAL ESTATE.

“A lot of the older clientele, especially men, love the sauna, and God forbid that thing goes down for even one day,” says Patrick Miller, a former gym employee. Inevitably, though, the sauna does go down because it gets abused. “Whether it's from pouring water on the rock, which you are not supposed to do, to peeing on the rocks, when that sauna does go down, you may as well have just kidnapped their first born child,” Miller says.  

11. GYMRATS LOVE CRIME SHOWS.

For some reason, people tend to watch crime TV when they’re working out. “It’s lot of Law and Order,” Fowler says. “I haven’t quite figured it out yet.” Someone even created a Law & Order: SVU workout. It calls for 10 squats every time Elliot loses his cool. 

Even Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for the New Yorker, likes watching crime shows on the treadmill. And this is a woman who watches TV (often really good TV) for a living. “Generally, this lineup consists of reruns of Law & Order: SVU and NCIS, which is a show I have actually never watched outside of the gym,” she writes. “I watch using captions, with headphones plugged into Pandora, and since I don’t follow the plot closely, watching the show has evolved into an experimental and soothing experience, all about people glaring and breaking down doors. It’s nearly avant-garde, or like one of those meditation DVDs.” 

12. YES, THE EMPLOYEES ARE WATCHING YOU.

Work in a gym and you’ll notice all kinds of human quirks that go way beyond just grunting and excessive sweating. For example, there are some members who show up regularly but don’t use the gym to work out at all. 

“There was this really sweet lady who would come in and shower at the gym and then leave,” Presley says. “No one would see her work out. It was really strange.” 

Others drop in just to please their employers. “There are still members to this day who come in, scan their cards, and leave five minutes later just so their employer can see they hit their quota for the month and pay for their membership,” Miller says. 

And the locker rooms are like treasure troves of strange human behavior. Presley tells the story of a regular at his gym who everyone called "the ladies man." “He would flirt with all the women and the front desk workers,” he says. “I walked into the men’s locker room one day and he had his toupee off and was combing it and blow drying it.”

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

Amazon

Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.