To whip our bodies into shape, many of us head to a treadmill, elliptical or one of the myriad of other machines meant to raise our heart rates and burn off those extra pounds. But maintaining your physique becomes quite challenging if your favorite exercise machine is out of shape — i.e. broken. That’s where Tim Hilton comes in. Hilton’s the lead service tech at Gym Doctors, a firm that’s been practicing its own brand of field service medicine for 19 years throughout the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Hilton’s one of 12 service technicians who service and maintain all types of fitness equipment with a focus on cardio machines, from brands like Life Fitness, Nautilus, Technogym, Precor and many others.
Mechanically inclined his entire life — including a stint repairing office equipment with his dad out of high school — becoming a “Gym Doc” eight years ago was a natural transition for Hilton. As opposed to fitness chains, Hilton usually works on machines in homes, apartment buildings or hotel fitness centers. Every once in a while Hilton finds himself in a health club like Crunch or 24-Hour Fitness if one of their machines needs a warranty repair, but generally those facilities have their own in-house personnel for all other service-related tasks.
For each job, Hilton’s home office gives him a name, address and task description. Before Hilton pulls out his toolbox, he puts on his detective hat. “If it’s a treadmill, you have to ask the questions,” Hilton said. “What’s it not doing? Is it not running? Is the belt not moving? Is it dead?” After some back and forth with the customer, Hilton turns the machine on and tries to duplicate the problem.
Since most treadmills are the same in terms of having two motors and two rollers, the differences mostly lie in the electronics each brand uses. Potential problems can arise when larger machines need to be moved or turned over in a confined area, or if problems are intermittent — a squeak that only occurs every so often, for instance. And since he often fixes machines found in customers’ living rooms, bedrooms and basements, sometimes user error comes into play. “If it’s a new machine, I ask who put it together,” Hilton explained. “I’ve been to houses where they don’t know which end of the screwdriver to hold.”
Along with old standards like screwdrivers, wrenches and allens one can find in any hardware store, Hilton has a few specialty tools in his arsenal, like a crank puller for working on bikes. On the technical side, Hilton has a laptop he carries with him to locate part numbers and prices, and a GPS navigational device he sometimes uses when driving his company-issued Scion xB, a decidedly smaller ride than your standard white van. “Nothing but an oversized go-kart,” Hilton said of his boxy service vehicle (pictured). “But they do haul, they carry a lot of stuff. A lot of parts, a lot of necessary stuff that we need. They work out. 30 miles per gallon, it’s nice.”
With a constant stream of new machines — often featuring TVs and touch screens — even a veteran fitness machine mechanic needs help occasionally. Luckily, every manufacturer employs a reliable support system. “You can call them up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this, have you ever come across this?’ And they’ll walk you through it,” according to Hilton. On his team of 12 service technicians, however, Hilton’s seniority makes him the person other techs call when they run into issues they can’t solve alone. Usually such collaboration is done over the phone, since the techs are usually spread out around the Bay Area on different assignments. Hilton estimates that he usually visits Gym Doctors’ home office in Hayward about once a week to check in, pick up parts and turn in paperwork.
Gym Doctors hires entry-level service techs with solid mechanical backgrounds, but experience working on fitness equipment isn’t necessarily required. New techs take service classes offered by the manufacturers themselves, along with shadowing another service tech for a couple weeks before going out on their own.
“As long as you’re a person who likes to fix things and tinker with things, this is a good job,” Hilton said.