Kim Long is doing "legs" today. She strains against the weights, focusing her workout on strengthening her thigh and calf muscles, moving smoothly and slowly. She can take all the time she wants: No one is standing by, anxious to use the machine.
After all, it is only 4:15 a.m.
Since January, when the Downtown Athletic Club in Baltimore began staying open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Long has been exercising when most people are asleep. By 7 a.m., the computer network specialist will have completed her workout -- and her 45-minute commute from Baltimore to Hanover.
"It's easier to work out in the early morning -- before the traffic gets bad. It's hard enough to go to work without spending a third of your life sitting in traffic," she says. "And if I don't exercise, it just seems my day doesn't go as well."
Caught between growing recognition of the health benefits of exercise and the incessant demands of work and family, many Americans are searching for new ways to squeeze a daily workout into their already overflowing schedules. And like Long, some are finding that the hours of the day either are too few or too inconvenient. In response, a growing number of athletic facilities, some with names like Anytime Fitness, are staying open all day -- and all night.
These 24-hour facilities are catering to those whose professional shifts end after midnight, whose evenings are filled with baths and bedtime stories, or whose goal is to circumvent rush hour.
And if the just plain fitness-obsessed want to join in and work out round-the-clock, they're welcome, too.
"We never close," says Jonathan Venuti, a manager and trainer at the Canton Club, a 24-hour fitness center. "People love to be fit, and they don't have time to fit it in. This allows bartenders, truck drivers, doctors to use the clubs."
The Canton Club, which offers round-the-clock gym access and panoramic views of Baltimore's waterfront, is staffed between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., says Venuti. After that, members can use electronic key cards to enter the gym. Surveillance cameras and security systems ensure clients' safety, he says.
"People are starting to understand that fitness is very important in their lives, but their lives are more and more chaotic. You can't say, 'I don't have time,'" Venuti says. "You can go home, eat dinner with the family, tuck in the baby and come back and work out. If you want to get to the club, you can."
Though their numbers are growing, 24-hour gyms still are considered a niche segment of the nearly $18 billion fitness club industry, says Rosemary Lavery, spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a nonprofit organization that researches and tracks fitness clubs.
Of the nearly 30,000 health clubs in the United States, an estimated 800 to 1,000 offer 24-hour a day services to their members, according to the IHRSA. And those numbers are rising.
"People are seeing that exercise is a necessity, not a vanity thing," says Lavery. "It is a way of life and a way to ward off ill health and work toward overall health and well-being."
Typically, clubs that cater to night owls are springing up in urban areas, she adds. "They are likely to have more success where there are colleges, hospitals or manufacturing."
So far, the Downtown Athletic Club, which is owned by the Maryland-based Merritt Athletic Clubs, is the only one of the chain's 10 locations to be open 24 hours daily. The facility typically serves a steady stream of members throughout the night with a spike at about 3 a.m. when many night shifts end, says Donyel Hood, marketing director. "We haven't decided whether we'll expand to the other clubs."
In addition to the Merritt and Canton clubs, the Life Time Fitness complex is open 24/7. The facility, in Columbia, is part of a Minnesota-based corporation that includes nearly 70 Life Time Fitness centers, many of which are open all the time.
And Anytime Fitness, a Hastings, Minn., chain, oversees 450 24-hour clubs nationwide and plans to nearly triple that number by the end of 2008, says spokesman Mark Daly. In Maryland, Anytime Fitness franchises are scheduled to open in locations including Bethesda, Thurmont and Bel Air.
"The founders did extensive surveying of their longtime members and asked what they wanted, and they found out they wanted convenience and affordability," Daly says. "People wanted to work out on their way to work or home and at any hour that they needed."
At Life Time Fitness in Columbia, a strong desire to beat the Baltimore-Washington rush hour traffic is the impetus for many early morning workouts. "You've sat in traffic on the Beltway, you can understand why," says John Gorman, general manager. "We get a steady flow of commuters: At 3 and 4 they start showing up, and by 5:30, they are on the road."
Exercise is beneficial no matter when you do it, says Jay Dyer, director of sports performance at the Union Memorial Hospital Sports Medicine Center. "Someone who gets off at 1 in the morning is in the same boat as someone who works 9 to 5: They need to somehow get to the gym."
A post-exercise rush of endorphins may keep some people from falling asleep if they work out right before going to bed, says Dyer. And studies show that early morning -- when your stomach is empty -- may be the best time to burn fat. But in general, he says, "There's no scientific data that would say it is prohibitive to work out at night. If anything, most people would agree that your body is used to having a schedule and it is best to work out at the same time each day. Your workouts are going to be more efficient and better."
The wee hours of the morning seem to suit Baltimore painter Nicky Schleider just fine. She often works out at the Downtown Athletic Club at 1:30 a.m., and most days, she savors the solitude.
"I don't like crowds," she says. When she feels like company, she exercises a little later. On those days, "I go around 3:30 or so and when I'm coming off the floor, people are beginning to come in."
When is the best time to exercise? Most experts say it's more important to focus on just doing it rather than when you do it. But for those who believe timing is everything, here's a look at the pros and cons of exercising at different hours of the day:
-- Helps increase metabolism so you burn more calories throughout the day. Studies also show that those who exercise in the morning are more consistent with their workout routines.
-- Lower body temperature may make cold muscles and stiff joints more prone to injury. Warm-ups and stretching are key.
-- Research on circadian rhythms, the body's internal clock, shows people are stronger and more alert in the afternoon, when body temperature is higher, muscles are warmer and lung performance is at its peak.
-- It may be more difficult to stick to a routine in the middle of the day. Also, exercising too soon after lunch may impair digestion.
-- May help those who have trouble sleeping. A study of insomniacs found they slept better after exercising later in the day. Vigorous exercise temporarily increases stress hormones, but when hormone levels drop a few hours later, they often dip below normal, which can make it easier to fall asleep.
-- May keep some people awake. A study of postmeno- pausal women showed that those who exercised in the morning slept better than those who exercised at night. Experts say it's important to leave enough time -- about three to four hours -- between working out and going to bed.
[FROM STAFF REPORTS]