THE GYM WARS are breaking out in New York. For a year or two, the city had disappeared indoors, ordered the pizza and turned on the television; New York had gone couch potato. Fitness is back, however, with a vengeance, and it's heading for your

neighbourhood.

Gyms are opening all over town. Bigger gyms. Uber gyms. Neighbourhood gyms.

Gyms steal prime instructors from one another; gyms spy on each other.

The new World Gym offers child care and the California look, all blonde wood and plants, and a 24-hour service, which is presumably intended to lure insomniacs and the stray diva from the Metropolitan Opera across the street.

At the Equinox Fitness Center, the hippest of gyms on the hip Upper West Side, you enter at street level. Everything is black, white and grey. The rooms are stocked with chrome machinery, with a Cybex fitness machine and treadmill and weights.

In one room, in an aerobics class, bodies fly through the air; in another, a man wearing a white Spandex unitard and a ponytail does a frenzied step aerobics routine.

All of this equipment, all of these bodies are working in a series of rooms with mirrored walls and glass partitions between them so that the bodies and the machinery are endlessly reflected in one another. What Equinox looks like is the set for Terminator III, the Flab Attack.

Unique to Equinox is the Rock Climbing Wall. This is a 10ft-high slab angled towards you and made of hard, black rubber. It has mock rocks on its surface with very small toe-holds and there is a harness into which you fit yourself. The whole thing resembles a torture machine made by one of those Italian designers who make lamps that hit you in the head.

On one wall is a logo, 'E = MC2 ', which is translated: 'Energy = Motivated Conditioning.'

'I come here every day for at least three hours. Sometimes more,' says a young, well-muscled woman wearing skin-tight grey sweats who is lifting weights with her partner, a perfectly made black man in a black unitard. She does not look at me as she talks but concentrates on the mirror, her eyes glazed.

He watches her in the mirror. 'I changed jobs to get here every day,' he says. 'This is the most important thing in my life.'

What is new about Equinox and its denizens is the scale of the place and the obsession of its clients. Most people come here every day, twice a day. They come for cross-training. They come for classes in body sculpting, in 'Buns and Thighs', in Aerbox ('Aerobics Gone Hard Core') and Israeli Self-Defence ('Easy to follow - could save your life.') They come for the Cardio Theatre.

In the Cardio Theatre, I get on a treadmill, plug in my earphones and look up at the televisions hung from the ceiling. I can channel-hop, from CNN to Guiding Light, my favourite day-time soap opera. I no longer feel my body moving; I have gone into orbit. This is the work-out as Virtual Reality. Everyone is working hard, scared to be unfit. Scared of . . . disease.

At Equinox, though, disease is good for business. 'Cardiovascular disease is now the No 1 killer in the United States,' says Danny Errico who, with his sister Lavinia and his brother Vito, owns the Equinox.

Once, before the fall, Danny was 'into' real estate, but he saw the light; the yuppie, now unemployed, has become the obsessively unfat. Where once the Yuppie made money, now he makes muscles.

It comes to the same thing. Fitness is a religion, as it had never been back in the amateur days of the Fonda work- out video, never fun as in the days of the pick-up gym where you went to find girls. Even Mike Tyson, it is alleged, is scheduled to make a work-out video from jail.

With shoulder-length hair and a muscle-bound lope, Danny Errico resembles a cross between Christopher Lambert and Sly Stallone; Lord Greystoke of Rambo.

Danny leans over his desk. He is a zealot, a true believer, a Bible- thumper. He is planning three more gyms in New York, with an eye on LA and Chicago. Like a televangelist, Danny has discovered that faith sells.

Members peer into Danny's office, as if looking for a sign. He measures out his approval. He is the big man here on the work-out campus, and he is deadly serious.

Bodies count. Fitness counts. In the Knucklehead Nineties, in New York, there may be a lot of intellectual deadbeats. For the know-nothings - brains dead, bodies still twitching - this is what passes for entertainment.

This is . . . well, listen to Sally Hamilton, the fresh-faced public relations woman at Equinox . . . 'getting back to family values, what with Aids and all. People are working out together. Drinking, smoking and eating are bad for you.'

Hey, there may be 30 million functional illiterates in America, but by God, there are not going to be a lot of sagging buns, not if Danny Errico has his way. Arbeit macht frei, if you get my drift.

At the snack bar (no fat, no salt), half a dozen people sit around a table. All remark that they come here at least twice a day. Some come to classes on Saturdays. They work on naked baked potatoes and fat-free frozen yoghurt. There is no Lycra in sight; no flash; no sex. This is a crowd in monochrome cottons, in environmentally correct work-out gear. This is the gym as dressed by Gap, Benetton Nation on a fitness bender.

Not one person looks at the physical attributes of a member of the opposite sex, all gazing studiedly away from all these beautiful bodies.

One woman who has her legs wrapped around her head like a yoga pretzel does not respond at all when I try to talk to her; like everyone else at Equinox, her body is a perfect 10. It makes you want to shoot yourself.

But the last word on bodies comes from the borough of Queens: 'Hiiii . . . This is the Bikini fan-a-see, we are open seven days a week . . . and keep on fan-a-sizing.' At the Bikini Car Wash, bimbettes in bikinis (who have clearly been working on those pecs) buff your Buick by hand.

Bikini is heading for stormy weather: opening on Saturday in the Naked City is a Topless Car Wash. Located on Staten Island, it is called Wet 'n' Wild. A dozen topless babes between 18 and 24 will wash your car. On Ladies' Day, the owner will give the washing to nubile guys who will wear bow ties and G- strings for the occasion.

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