A doctor from the medical center is lifting weights in the corner. A young man with a twisted knee is progressing through a series of exercises. A trim, chiseled woman is working out with the proprietor, personal trainer Michael Widener.
This is Southwest Personal Fitness, a longstanding Ruidoso gym where only the serious survive. It's also a business with a sustainable culture - built on loyalty, personal relationships and a profit-second ethic.
"That's why it's called personal training. It is a very personal thing," Widener says.
"I know every one of these people intimately. It's not a thank you-for-shopping-at-Wal-Mart kind of thing. A lot of these people are my best friends in the whole world. It's what happens when you truly try to help people, they're truly honest with you,
and you actually get somewhere. You end up with a bond. I would rather have the relationships than the money from a high-volume business.
"When I die, I can't take my money, but I can take those relationships I made along the way."
Widener, 36, was born in Abilene. By the time he was 12, he was a skinny, "runty" kid. His father, a former drill sergeant in the U.S. Army, decided to toughen him up.
"Dad exercised a lot," he says. "He took a Nautilus course on how to train someone under the age of 16. He bought a full line of Nautilus equipment, and trained me there at the house. He had me lifting weights.
"My dad taught me right. I never stopped. I took to it like a duck to water, just loved it."
Because he never stopped, and because he never resorted to artificial means such as steroids, Widener to this day sets an occasional personal best on the weights.
The family moved to Ruidoso when Michael was 15. "I had a lot of friends in Abilene and wasn't happy with Dad at the time, but I got over it," he says.
After graduating from Ruidoso High School, he attended Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, graduating with a business degree.
"OK, now what are you going to do?" his dad asked him one day.
"I don't know."
"Well, if you're not studying or you're not working, you're lifting weights. Ever thought about trying to make some
money on it?"
"How about opening up a health club or something?"
His dad, who owned the former Nob Hill Restaurant on El Paso Road, bought some equipment and bankrolled the new venture, to be called Southwest Health Club.
"This building sat here vacant for 20 years when I got it," Michael says. "It was a mess for us to clean up. It took years to get it where it is now, and it's still not where I want it."
When he married, Widener bought the business from his dad.
His certification, acquired after college, is from ACE (American Council on Exercise) and Nautilus, for which he was a master trainer until they closed that school four years ago. He also has hours toward a physical therapy license but was too busy to finish the course.
"I would like to go back and finish, maybe get a nursing certificate," he says.
Nine years ago, the business was renamed South-west Personal Fitness. It's not, Widener stresses, just another gym.
"Mine's more for serious people who really want to learn something, grab hold of it, and spend some time on changing their body - either for muscle growth, for losing weight or for bone density. Usually it's for something fairly serious."
Thus, unlike most gyms, there wasn't a big spike in business at the beginning of the year.
"I don't usually get a huge influx of New Year's resolutions. Mine's more of a serious commitment."
Achieving results requires old-fashioned work, Widener points out.
"There are no short-cuts. Crash dieting doesn't work because you'll lose weight but you'll also lose muscle and you'll lose fat at the same time. When you lose muscle, you lose part of your metabolism, so when you get off the crash diet, not only do you gain the weight back that you had before but plus a little bit more.
"It needs to be a life-style change, where you learn how to eat right, sleep right, work out. People try to make more of it rocket science than it is. That's part of the gimmicks that makes us Americanized. We're constantly trying to say we have the next neat deal that will get you there easier. The truth is, there is no substitute for hard work, there is no substitute for discipline.
"That's why, if I have a [person with a] New Year's resolution, it doesn't last. If it's something that they're serious about, it'll last. When they want to do it, it makes my job easier. If you're not serious about it, you're wasting my time and I'm wasting yours."
Ann Henry was serious about it seven years ago at the age of 65.
"When she started, she came in here on a walker," Widener says. "Seven years later, I dare any 72-year-old to try and keep up with her."
Henry, a former RN who moved to Alto with her husband in 2001, herniated some discs in her back while feeding cattle on her Texas ranch. "I had pain and weakness so bad I couldn't walk across the room," she says. "I felt I was melting."
Doctors in Texas treated the pain and put her on steroids. The root cause persisted.
"After we moved up here, I was taking a course at the university one night when I was in so much pain I could hardly get out of the building," Henry recalls.
At wit's end, she tried Southwest Personal Fitness in search of a "proactive" treatment. A year later she no longer needed a walker.
"Michael has done so much for me. He gave me my life back," she says.
Widener put her on a program to strengthen the "core" in order to support the back.
"One of the things he worked on was [teaching] things you can do and things you can't do. Plus, he's a kindly, Christian man, and it's a sweet, kindly atmosphere - safe, wholesome and secure. The mental outlook helps just as much as the physical aspect."
Last year, Ann and her husband went deep sea fishing in Mexico. They're planning a trip to Honduras and Guatemala.
"Michael's a real service to the senior community," she says. "I'm in much, much better in physical shape than I was
seven years ago."
"I hate it when I get started with somebody, and they're just on the verge of breaking through, just almost there, and either something happens in life where they can't continue, or, they just quit," Widener says.
"That's when it bothers me. I think, what could I have done differently to make this more interesting? That's what I don't like, when I feel I've lost someone who was almost to a point where they were fixin' to break open. So this can be a really frustrating business."
Sometimes, he's able to coax a client through past the mental challenge.
"I've gotten to the point sometimes where I didn't know what to do, I got on my knees and prayed about it. And God makes up the difference, to be quite honest. And when it's somebody you really care about, it makes all the difference in the world. To me, that's what this business is about. "
Potential clients have to be honest with him - and themselves, he says.
"There's a lot of people who will look at a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger and say, 'Yeah, I want to look like that. But do they want to do what that man did to get there? That's usually where the difference is. There's a lot of things that play into that. Doesn't mean they're lazy. It means their true wants and their true desires are different.
"I ask a client to be honest. What do they really want? As far as making body changes with appropriate exercises, building a bunch of muscle mass, I can do that. If they want to lose weight, I can help them do that. If they just want to feel better and have an overall sense of well-being and more energy and less pain, that kind of thing, I can do that. But I really need to know what direction they want.
"A client might come and say, 'I want to do this, do that,' and I work with him for two or three weeks and they quit, because they weren't being honest. They had an idea that they wanted to be that person, but that's not really who they were. What I tell people, I can't add one day to how long you're going to live. Whatever your time is, is your time. That's in God's hands; it's not in my hands. But what I can do is improve the quality of your life while you're here. But I can only do it if you're honest with me, as to what your really want out of your life and out of your body."
The discipline required for self-improvement is also the message. That extends to his martial arts classes.
"A woman called on behalf of a friend having problem with her son. He could benefit from some martial arts. I've got a kid right now, he's having a tough time with his life, his father's in prison. He doesn't have a role model. Usually, that's all a kid like that needs. Kids want to please, if you put him in a position where, 'If you do this, I'm proud of you, or if you do this there are consequences.' They have to see both sides. If they don't see both sides, if all they ever get is 'don't do that,' they get frustrated."
After a certain point, a client might learn enough to work out on his own. One afternoon, a young man with problems stemming from a twisted knee came in for a consultation.
"I haven't personally trained him for a long time," Widener said after talking with the man. "I taught him pretty much on the things to do. When they get to the point where they don't need me to hover over them anymore, I give them a break on (the cost) and they still work out here. They have me if they need me.
"It's a relationship. He doesn't need me, but by the same token he likes to come over and confirm things with me. He said he was feeling some twinges (in the twisted knee). I said you need to back off on the weights, until you can feel it, but no pain. In other words, you take it up to the pain, but not through the pain. He had a couple exercises out of order. I said you want to do your squats earlier in the workout, because they're a little riskier - not at the beginning because you're too cold, but not at the end, when those stabilizing muscles are too tired. So I explained that to him, a little bit of instruction."
It's all in keeping with Widener's philosophy of self-improvement.
"We do it according to what people need, not to just how much money I want to make. And the truth is, I make money because I have that approach. I'm not asking them to pay me for something they don't need to do. When people are getting what they need, not necessarily what they want, and you're keeping the pain away and they feel good, and the energy level's there, it's worth it.
"If you do it right, people will see a benefit, because it will save them money. They don't have to go to the doctor so much, because they don't hurt so much, and because you teach them how to eat and so forth, they don't get sick as much."