How can you tell without any prior knowledge which members of the gym are good or poor role models? Look for the survivors that are successful. Success is someone who is both lean and muscular (drug-free). The cardio area is full of people who are lean, but not muscular and the free weight room is full of muscular people who aren’t lean.
What do I mean by survivors? Those that are still around. The two primary reasons that people quit going to the gym are they fail to get results or get injured. This is why we can’t look at the young to be our role models. Between ages 15 and 30, gains are easy to come by and you can bounce back from injury relatively quickly. Besides having a hormonal edge, the young have also had less time to destroy their body with poor diets. Pizza, beer, and energy drinks have yet to make them overweight, but it is just a matter of time.
I started lifting weights at the ripe old age of 24. Throughout my lifting years, the free weight room was full of people from ages 20 to 35. After the age of 35, most seem to disappear. I am reminded of the sci-fi story Logan’s Run, where once a citizen gets to a certain age they get eliminated. The majority of people over 35 that start a weight training program don’t seem to stay around very long. They quit, only to be replaced with another old timer. T-Nation has a forum for mature lifters called The Over 35 Lifter. There is almost nobody left over 35 in the free weight room that is both lean and muscular.
If you see one of us old-timers working out at the gym, you will notice that we don’t train like most 20-year-olds. That go-big-or-go-home extreme mentality makes for great TV but will fail for all but the most genetically gifted. There are tens of thousands that trained just as hard and intense as Evander Holyfield, but there is only one Holyfield. We also don’t baby our bodies with unchallenging low-intensity exercises, as they fail to yield desired results.
The takeaway lesson is you shouldn’t model your exercise program based on extreme examples of success (Holyfield) or common examples of failure (treadmill, low intensity).
When you step into a gym, you are only seeing the people healthy enough and motivated enough to show up THAT DAY. Their presence is not proof that their workout choices are safe or effective. You do not see the much larger number of people who stopped coming that did exactly the same workouts and failed to get the desired results.