Does Anyone Actually Work Out in Italy?

Photo: Anton Oparin /

Nearly eight months after moving to Rome from New York, I finally joined la palestra — the gym. This was done more out of necessity than desire, born from my near-daily consumption of pizza, pasta, or pane, and often all three.

Tucked away just south of the Spanish Steps, in a low-ceilinged, but strangely atmospheric space, Spagna Fitness sat in the basement of what must have been a 400-year-old building, accessed from an alleyway where the historic center’s most prominent McDonald’s chucked its grease-stained Quarter Pounder containers.

I lasted there all of two months. Or, rather, the gym did. That’s how long it took before Spagna Fitness closed for “renovations” that never even began, much less ever ended, and I had to commission the good people at Citibank to go after the place’s owners in order to claw back the remaining ten months’ worth of my paid-up-front annual membership fee, with which they had absconded.

Of course, there were some gyms where workouts — of one kind or another — were certainly getting done, notably the so-called gay gym at the main train station, Termini; and at Hard Candy, the Madonna-branded spot that’s opened two locations in Rome since May of last year, and where the audition line for wannabe trainers and attendants stretched around the block. And then, on a hill overlooking the city, there’s the see-and-be-seen gym at the Rome Cavalieri, the Dolce Vita–era Hilton turned Waldorf-Astoria, where even hotel guests have to pay a daily fee to use the fitness equipment, and posh locals from northern Rome’s fanciest neighborhoods pay annual member dues that start north of 2,400 — and still do little more than hang out by the water fountain, peacocking.

But all this really only gets at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to typifying the Roman gym-going experience. For an expert’s take on that, as well as a compare-and-contrast play-by-play between it and its American equivalent, I turned to Gerard “Coach G” Burley, a D.C.-based personal trainer who spent three years recently living in Rome, where he worked with pretty much all the expats of import — including many of the folks at the U.S. embassies in Rome. According to Coach G, there are five main differences between working out American style and alla Romana:

1. They don’t keep it cool.
In an effort to stave off heatstroke while we all sweat ourselves silly, even the most bare bones of American gyms provides the basic necessity of coolly air-conditioned air. In Italy, on the other hand, air-conditioning and even fans are largely all but prohibited, out of the fear that you may die of “the chill,” a.k.a. colpo d’aria. Be prepared to sweat your balls off.

2. They’re not into ModelFit, or CrossFit, or anything at all, really.
Whether it’s P90X, Insanity, or Tone House, in the States, we’re always looking for the newest, toughest training regime out there. In Italy, not so much. If your objective is to bring your heart rate up, you might be out of luck. The hardest part of the workout is often getting your outfit on …

3. They dress to impress.
In the land of alta moda and bella figura, there’s no end to the fashion disasters you might see at the gym: leather pants (while walking, natch) on the treadmill, full-on updos during (gentle) aerobics, talonlike manicured fingernails for lifting (light) weights, maybe even high heels worn during (low-impact) cardio, which say nothing so much as “crazy stripper” or maybe just “Berlusconi mistress.” Sure, if you’re not going to sweat, you might as well look good, but this ain’t good, far from it in fact. And the locker room isn’t much better …

4. Nudity rules.
Italians take loving themselves and their bodies to another level. From the second you walk into a locker room, you won’t see a piece of clothing or a towel on anyone, ever; everyone’s just all naked, all the time. (In one small similarity between the two countries, as in the States, it’s always the people with the least to show off who are the most gung ho about it.) Usually it’s not so bad, but when some naked guy named Massimo’s got the top locker, and you’re reaching for your bag in the bottom one, too many times you end up with Massi’s member in your face. And you haven’t even had a first date. Word to the wise: Keep those swim goggles on in the locker room; your eyes might need the protection. But then getting too close for comfort is something the Italians almost always seems to have a lock on …

5. Things can — and do — get too close for comfort.
This is something that’s true up and down the boot, but maybe nowhere more so than at the gym: In the U.S., we have this thing called personal space, a concept that basically just doesn’t exist in Italy. At an outdoor workout boot camp, for example, random people would walk into the middle of the class and watch, literally standing a foot away from the students or instructor, and at the gym people might come thisclose to touching you while you do an exercise. When working out in Italy, be ready to get your personal bubble popped.