A Beginner’s Guide to the Gym

A Beginner’s Guide to the Gym

Is getting fit one of your New Year’s resolutions? If so, you’re in good company. Losing weight and getting fit are the most popular resolutions for Americans. Maybe you’ve decided to join a gym. As a guy who makes his living in a fitness center, I endorse your decision. (Naturally, I hope you’ll join Premier Health & Fitness Center and train with me, but this isn’t about me.) If you’ve never been a health club member, or if it’s been a while, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of the experience.

Consult Your Physician
If you have any health challenges, have a chat with your physician before beginning an exercise program. There are few—if any—absolute contraindications to exercise. The risks to your health from not exercising are far greater than those of engaging in an appropriate fitness program. Be sure the physician knows your whole medical history, including medications.

Start Low and Go Slow, But Make Progress
If you’re out of shape, avoid the temptation to do too much, too soon. If you’re starting from zero, two to three brief sessions of low-intensity exercise are fine for the first week. If you can, add one workout a week until you’re doing something on most days of the week. The next thing to increase is duration. If you do 20 minutes of the treadmill today, can you manage 21 minutes next time?

Get Appropriate Instruction
Do you remember when you first started learning to drive? There were so many things to remember, so many new skills to learn. All that new information had to be coordinated with all those new skills. This coordination had to happen instantly and seamlessly, or you’d crash. (There are warning labels on some exercise machines that say, “Failure to use this device properly could result in injury of death.” Lawyers.) The point is, learning to drive and learning to exercise take time, practice and good instruction. Where I work, all new members get two hours with a certified fitness professional. For many, this will be enough time to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exercise independently, safely and effectively. For others, more time, practice and instruction may be necessary. If this seems unreasonable, ask yourself if you could have learned to drive in two hours.

Hire a Certified Fitness Professional
You’ve no doubt heard of personal trainers. What you may not know is, they are not all the same. It’s possible to become a “Certified Personal Trainer,” with a credit card and internet access. Be sure the certification is legit (see below). In addition to personal trainers, some organizations offer advanced credentials (for example NSCA’s Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and ACSM’s Certified Exercise Physiologist).

If you need additional instruction, hiring someone may be essential. Even if you’re quite comfortable in the weight room, you may benefit from professional help. Research shows people who train with these pros have better results. Interview them first. What is their education and experience? How many people like you have they trained? The needs of a 16 year-old football player will be very different from those of a 72 year-old breast cancer survivor.

Discuss with your professional a plan that meets your needs and fits your schedule and budget. I’ve worked with people who were able to do their own workouts after four to six sessions. I’ve also trained clients two to three times a week for years.

Dress Appropriately
You don’t have to spend a lot on workout clothes. A t-shirt, gym shorts, and some good socks and shoes are adequate. Many prefer modern, moisture-wicking fabrics to cotton, which gets wet and stays wet. Running, walking and cross-training shoes are fine for most gym use. Activity-specific shoes are recommended for basketball, racquetball, power lifting, spinning (indoor cycling) and some group exercise classes. Sandals and flip-flops may fine for going to yoga or out to the pool, but not on the fitness floor. Personally, I would never walk around a public locker room barefoot. Bring a towel to wipe your face and hands and to dry the equipment.

Nourish and Hydrate Yourself
You can’t run your car without fuel in the tank and coolant in the radiator. It’s quite common to see people unable to finish an exercise class or even pass out. The two most common causes are hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and dehydration. They haven’t eaten or drunken water all day, come to the club after work, and weak out halfway through Zumba class. Drink water or other hydrating fluids (not carbonated, alcoholic, or caffeinated), all day. I used to tell athletes, “Pour through the water till it runs out clear” (or about the color of weak lemonade). Have a snack of low-glycemic carbohydrates and some protein, about three hours before your workout. (If you have diabetes and are new to exercise, consult with a diabetes educator.)

Avoid the Ruts
You will quickly discover what you like and may be tempted to stick to that. Some people only take water aerobics; others do nothing but weight training. A well-rounded fitness program will include some form of cardiorespiratory exercise. This can be water aerobics (or some other group exercise), walking, running, hiking, biking, or swimming. Stationary cardio devices like treadmills, stationary bikes, ellipticals, stair climbers, and rowing ergs are very popular. Experiment with as many types of cardio activities as possible. Your program should also include some progressive resistance training. This can be done with free weights, weight machines, elastic tubing, and body weight. Assuming you have no desire to be a body builder or power lifter, a 30- to 45-minute workout two or three times a week is plenty. If you have some musculoskeletal pain or dysfunction, some stretching and other types of corrective exercise may be helpful. Be sure your fitness professional is knowledgeable in this area.

Enjoy Yourself
I’ve been a member or employee of some type of fitness center for most of my adult life and can’t imagine being without it. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met at the gym. Respect the club and your fellow members by following gym etiquette. If the facility and its people and programs don’t work for you, don’t be afraid to move. Have fun. Be adventurous. Health club membership can be one of the best things in your life. As always, if I can of help with this, or anything else, please contact me at the below.

David Wheeler, MA, MS is Wellness & Health Recovery Coordinator at Premier Health & Fitness Center. He is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Exercise Physiologist. David provides fitness training and health coaching for those contending with health challenges and for healthy adults who want to stay that way. He can be reached at david.wheeler@tmh.org or 850-431-4835.

Premier Health & Fitness Center accepts these certifications: ACSM; NASM; SCA; ISSA; ACE; NFPT; NCSF; IFPA; NETA; AAPTE; NESTA; AAHFRP

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