Shelley Gets Fit: The Newbie Hits the Gym

I did it.

For the first time in over a decade, I set foot in a fitness club and exercised. For those who regularly work out in gyms across Canada, this might not seem like much of a momentous accomplishment. But for me, it was.

I did work out occasionally at a gym for brief period when I was around 26 or 27. I’d do cardio for 20 minutes or so, catch the odd class, very rarely attempt some of the machines. And it worked, sort of. I actually slimmed down a bit after a few months of sporadic workouts (not that I needed it back then). But although I didn’t hate it, I never really caught the fever.

Now that I’m pushing 40 and I’m in sub-par shape, it’s not just a dislike of the gym that made me reluctant to go, but a lack of confidence. Because it’s never been my “thing” and it’s something I’m pretty much assured to be not so good at, a fitness club just never felt like a place I would be comfortable in. But could I perhaps find a gym that works for me?

I asked Toronto personal trainer Lhara Eben for tips when picking a gym. And just like in real estate, she says location, location, location is the most important thing.

“It must either be right by your place of work or your home,” she says. “It could be somewhere you can get to easily from work, because once you are home, getting back out rarely happens. Or, if it’s right by your home, perhaps you can go first thing in the morning.”

“Vibe is certainly important, but you won’t get much of a feel on a first visit. Any self-respecting gym, no matter if it’s a big chain or small boutique, should offer you some free passes to try out some classes.”

Eben also had some great ideas for how people (like me) who don’t generally love gyms can make it work for them.

“One of the best ways to make your first gym experience positive is to find a gym buddy,” she says. “You can help each other stick to your goals, and having someone leaning on you will keep you more focused too. But if this is not an option, make a weekly plan that is not overly ambitious. The last thing you want to do is go ‘gangbusters’ for the first two days and then be so sore and tired you don’t want to go back.”

One way to feel more comfortable, says Eben, is to bring confidence with you in the form of a portable mp3 player.

“Whatever inspires you, listening-wise, is key,” she says. “Motivating tunes are great, or I like audio books because I get engrossed and forget I’m running. You can even download workouts. Just don’t show up at the gym without a plan. Winging it as a newbie is too hard.”

With Eben’s advice in mind, I decided to try out a local women’s-only gym, because I walk by it frequently and it’s less than five minutes from my home. Nothing too fancy, but it looks about my speed.

I bought my new running shoes (which I love) and my new workout clothes (which I tolerate) and headed off to the gym, armed with a water bottle and an iPod with some appropriately high-energy playlists.

With butterflies in my stomach, I walked in and up to the reception desk. The staff was very friendly, one guy named Raymond gave me a tour and told me I could try the place out for free for the day. They gave me my loner lock, pointed me to the change rooms and encouraged me to try out the yoga class happening later that morning. Okay. So far so good. On my way to the locker room, I stole looks at other patrons, and fortunately they ran the gamut from young to old, from wide to thin. I liked that.

I had spotted a cross-trainer that looked vaguely familiar from my short-lived gym days, so I made a beeline. It was sort of tucked away in a corner behind the stairs, with no massive mirror in front of it. I started to climb on, but then I realized I hadn’t changed into my runners yet. Did I mention I was nervous?

Feeling a bit silly but now properly attired, I went back to the machine. I asked one of the staff passing by to show me how to work it, and after a quick tutorial, she suggested I try to do 20 minutes of cardio. Okay. I can do this, I thought.

After the first few minutes, I felt way too winded. And disappointed – I wasn’t going to be able to do this after all! But I slowed down, checked my heart rate (which was too high, according to the guide on the machine), took the level down a couple notches and started breathing normally again. I picked out some loud, energetic music and got into a pretty good groove. No, I wasn’t going to be breaking any speed records, but I was sweating, I was moving and I was feeling my muscles work. And I kept it up… 20 minutes, then 30. Hooray for me!

I slowed right down to cool off for a bit, then climbed down, feeling pretty pleased with myself. I wiped down the machine (only good gym etiquette for me) and did a bit more easy cardio on an exercise bike. It was much more moderate, but it still felt good and I completed another 10 minutes.

I decided the weight machines were just too much for me to tackle without a proper assessment and orientation by a trainer, so I called it a day. The most important thing was that I decided I liked it there and I actually enjoyed the zone-out intensity of the cardio. I didn’t feel like it wasn’t a place for me.

I got the prices from a staff member (still friendly) with a class schedule and told them I’d be back. And I will.

Next up, an assessment and workout plan at the gym and getting to work on my not-so-fabulous diet.