Fitness and fitting in at the new gym

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With 550 locations worldwide, Gold's claims to be the largest coed gym chain in the world. It has 2.5 million members. As of today, I became No. 2,500,001.

Today is my debut, and man, am I nervous. I mean, I've heard of Gold's Gym. I think of it vaguely as a place for steroid-pumped swingers, where the guys flex with each step and the women all have names like Rhonda, Doty, and Chavonne, sort of like the hood girls at Carle Place High on Long Island, where I grew up. (Hood girls sported mounds of sprayed and teased hair, wore tight clothes and heavy eyeliner, and had absolutely nothing to do with dweebs like me.)

But Gold's is just four miles from my house and turns out to be cheaper than the YMCA I've gone to the past three years. And so, I found myself signing on the dotted line minutes into my first visit. Yesterday, the place was teeming with machines. Today, I realize, it might also be teeming with people. Serious jocks. Guys named Rocco who can crush me like a bug.

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I need an entrance strategy. I know wardrobe counts, so I dress in black. Reminder to self: Buy black cross-trainers at The Athlete's Foot. I also read all of yesterday's football scores. I mean, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane were on to something in "The Birdcage." I'm ready to throw those Miami Dolphins scores around.

My plan is to start slowly. No weights (20-pound lifts do not impress). Some long, lean stretches should give me cover while I stealthily peer right and left to check out the scene. Lots of slugs on the old water bottle. (Reminder to self: Buy a decent water bottle; Poland Spring retreads don't cut it.)

But first, I try a little reconnaissance. I drive twice around the parking lot and discover, to my relief, nearly as many minivans as SUV's, just four or five pickups, and only a handful of yellow ribbons plastered on windows and bumpers. The place looks pretty normal after all. Inside, a Barbie doll with a baked-brown synthetic sort of tan smiles behind the desk. But behind her, sweating and hefting, is a pretty normal crowd of newly resolved fitness buffs. Guys with guts. Girls grinding off a few too many Christmas cookies. Just a few Roccos, tattoos plastered down their arms and lower legs. But the place is warehouse-sized, so I smile and quickly steer clear.

I stretch out, struggle through 70 crunches (I was up to 100-plus in September), bike 11.49 miles in 30 minutes (I choose the speed labeled "fat-burning"), manage another 400 calories on the weird machine that makes you feel your legs are sliding up and down a hill, and call it a day.

Except for one harried young mother clutching a tow-headed son, I don't even see another cutting-edge fashion plate dressed in black. What do you think? I probably can stick with my white New Balance cross-trainers after all.

Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

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