When I travel, I like to try out local neighborhood gyms. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a “mega-gym”. I, in fact, belong to one such mega-gym full of new equipment, fancy trainers and sparkly cardio equipment, row on row.

But, there is something very special about the smaller local neighborhood gyms.

These gyms have history, guts and character. There is no “fanciness”, just shorts, a t-shirt and a good buddy hefting beat-up dumbbells, right beside you.

I was travelling with my husband and my in-laws for a summer getaway last weekend. We chose Leavenworth, Washington as our destination. This lively Bavarian themed town is quirky and frankly, a little odd, (literally, lederhosen) but has lots to offer to keep a group of folks busy for a few days. The food offerings are fantastic, and there are plenty of shops and entertainment to whet your whistle (or Alphorn as the case may). We rented (VRBO) a fabulous little townhouse for the occasion. It was not only close to the shops and bratwurst; it was only 0.6 of a mile from the closest gym.

Thinking Of Joining A Gym? ~ Why Your Local, Old School Gym, Is A Better Choice WELLFITandFED

On the first morning of our visit to Leavenworth, I arrived at the “gym” after some google-maps generated twists and turns through farm fields. Just before I spotted the sign, I saw a couple guys working on some big piece of crop machinery in a neighbour’s driveway. (Overalls, in this case, not lederhosen.) The sign said “Club West” and it welcomed you down a driveway to a spacious property.

Thinking Of Joining A Gym? ~ Why Your Local, Old School Gym, Is A Better Choice WELLFITandFED

When I had called the day before I was asked, “When do you want to come in?” I said, “around 7 AM,” and the employee said, without hesitation, “I usually don’t get here till 8, so if you wanna pop by today I’ll just give you a key to get in.”  (What???) I responded, “that will not be necessary,” and queried what the fee might be for a drop-in? “Uhhhhh… eight bucks?” Eight bucks it is! (I haven’t paid less than 20 for a drop in 15 years.)

Thinking Of Joining A Gym? ~ Why Your Local, Old School Gym, Is A Better Choice WELLFITandFED

I walked into an open, empty lobby. There was no one around, so I just found my way to a back room that was the main weight room. I decided I would pay when I saw someone who worked there, and got down to it. I took a brief inventory of my surroundings. What this gym offered was perfectly acceptable; flat benches, free weights, kettle bells, Nautilus machines and resistance bands. The equipment was well worn but not in ill repair. There were a couple of guys already there and finishing up. (Had their own keys I guess!)

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In walked a tall, lanky drink of water in a red T-shirt and black shorts. He was grey-haired, super fit and clearly the person who worked here. I found out, from my two new good buddies, that he was the owner. (And the guy that wanted to hand out keys to the establishment to complete strangers!). “Jake” had been the proprietor of Club West for 23 years, and the word on the street was that he pretty much trained everyone in Leavenworth. I explained to Jake that I was a fitness writer. I asked if he would mind if I took a couple of photos for my piece. He got a little embarrassed and pulled out a broom to sweep up.

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Jake is a 60-year-old, latent athlete, who only started running when he was fifty. Shortly after his first few marathons he decided he would run a marathon in fifty states. He is heading to his 26th in September. He clearly provides massive inspiration to all the locals.

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The second day I was there Jake greeted me with a grand hello. I returned to my little corner from the day before and started working out. I like to observe people when I work out. I also, truth be told, will turn down my ear bud volume and eavesdrop. I know, terrible! But, there were three lovely women being “group-trained” by Jake and I overheard them traverse topics of health, relocation, school, friendship and kids all in the span of about 15 minutes. I was completely enamoured by their solid friendship. They had obviously known each other for many years. There were plenty of sweaty hugs and smiles upon their departure. Other folks trickled in during my workout. One particularly well-connected woman, demonstrated by the fact she knew absolutely everyone there, turned out to be 87 years old! Jake told me she comes in and lifts weights multiple times a week!

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I could not believe the energy at this place, it was so collaborative, supportive, and loving. I don’t remember the last time I left my mega-gym with a ridiculous smile on my face (other than for the pure relief of being done.) Leaving Club West, I couldn’t stop grinning.

So, obviously the smaller neighborhood gyms can lack in variety and quality of equipment. They don’t hand you a towel when you walk in, and they don’t have an HDTV screen on every piece of cardio equipment. But any shortcomings are overthrown by the sense of community, the ongoing support toward common goals, and the lack of fussiness and pretense. There is something powerful about working out with the same people year after year, something deeply bonding about doing life together with a common pursuit of health and longevity.

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If you are considering a new gym, think about trying out some of the smaller more “neighbourhoody” options. You will not be disappointed.

Oh ya, when I reminded Jake about the eight bucks I owed him he just waved his hand in the air and said “phlebbtt.”

Shout outs to my new friends in Leavenworth:

Icicle Ridge Winery I met Don at the gym the first morning I went to Club West. He is a super friendly fellow with an unabashedly firm handshake. I surmised, because he told me, he is the owner of Icicle Ridge Winery. We decided to check it out and our visit there was fantastic. (Heavy pour on the tastings, and particularly delicious Gerweitsmeiner!) 

Thinking Of Joining A Gym? ~ Why Your Local, Old School Gym, Is A Better Choice WELLFITandFED

SOUTH I fell in love with this sweet spot. Price, who was Don’s workout buddy, started SOUTH as a tribute to foods from all over South America. Best Jalapeno cilantro margarita “The Stinger” on the planet! My favorite thing about this restaurant is the fact they locally source their food, and use grass fed, antibiotic-free meats whenever possible! 

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Club West Stop in and say hello to Jake! 

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Please share your greatest and worst gym experiences below in the comments section.