How to Navigate the Gym

Learn what to expect at your first gym visit and beyond, as well as how to make the most of your membership.
Navigating the Gym

If you haven't been to the gym for a while (like, say, since high school PE), you might think that today's fitness centers are intimidating bastions of highly toned people who all know exactly what they're doing. In reality, gyms welcome people of all skill levels, with a variety of memberships available to accommodate them.

You'll be making a commitment to your health, receiving encouragement and professional guidance, and best of all, seeing results in your body and mind. To help you get over whatever apprehensions you might have, here's a guide to what to expect, what to do and how to get the most out of your gym membership.

Step inside.
There are four basic types of gyms, each with its own appeal:

  • the neighborhood fitness center, a co-ed all-purpose gym or the local Y
  • the muscle gym, with no frills and serious bodybuilders
  • the women's-only center, where you'll find every body type and no singles scene
  • the luxury megaplex, where the equipment is always sparkling and you can get a massage or relax in the sauna after your workout

Inside, each will have its own look, but expect to find cardio equipment like treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers; free weights and machines for strength training; floor space for stretching or classes; locker rooms where you can change (if you don't arrive dressed to work out), stow your stuff and shower; and trained staff to show you how to use everything. Music will be playing; it's an energy boost, and it helps to keep a beat when working out. Scents may fill the air, anything from good old-fashioned sweat to aromatherapy.

What to Bring
There are certain must-haves for any gym workout: sneakers, comfortable workout clothes, a towel, a water bottle, and a lock for your locker; ladies, don't forget a sports bra (or two, if you need the support). Beyond that, it's up to you. You might want to pack a healthy snack for afterwards, an MP3 player, or even our printable workout sheet and a pen to record your workouts. Some gyms charge for things like "towel rental," in which case you'll need a little cash. Another possible bring-along: your kids, but only if the gym offers babysitting. Leave home valuables of any kind as well as your cell phone, unless it stays in your locker with the ringer off.

Basic Gym Etiquette
Many gyms have behavioral guidelines posted, but in case yours doesn't here are the essentials:

  • Be aware of personal hygiene—if you're prone to body odor, do something about it.
  • Always carry a towel, and wipe down any machine or bench when you're done using it.
  • If you're taking a class for the first time, arrive early and introduce yourself to the instructor, then claim a space towards the back so you can learn from others (the front rows are usually for those who know the routines).
  • At peak hours, there may be time limits for cardio equipment. Check at the front desk.
  • On strength-training machines, most people will "work in" with you—taking turns between sets—just be sure to ask first, wipe up after yourself, and re-set the weight to zero each time.
  • If you see someone you know, it's fine to pause for a moment (provided he or she wants to, of course), but be sure not to hog any equipment while you schmooze.
  • Mirrors are for checking your form, not for checking yourself out.
  • In the locker room, let modesty be your guide. You may be comfortable walking around naked, but don't assume that anyone wants to chat unless you're wearing a towel!

You're dressed and ready: Now what?
The very first time you enter the gym, you may want to start off slow—on a treadmill or stationary bike. Usually you can just hop on and press "start," but if you need guidance, either a staff member or the friendly soul on the next machine can help. Many gyms offer a free personal training session to new members—and even if you have no interest in weight lifting, take it!

The trainer should show you how to use everything (including stretching mats and balls) and give you a simple routine you can do on your own. After that, you decide whether to follow it, or to sign up for more sessions. If you're interested in classes, pick up a schedule at the front desk and plan ahead. The most popular instructors often have huge followings, so you'll want to arrive in plenty of time.

Make it a habit
If you're trying to lose weight, aim for about 45 minutes of additional physical activity most days, but don't fret if you can't manage that. The reality is, doing anything is helpful, so hit the gym whenever it fits into your schedule. By spending just 15 to 20 minutes on the treadmill every few days, you'll be getting your money's worth, and within a few weeks, you'll likely feel a difference. It may not be as obvious as pounds falling off, but you'll climb stairs more easily, see new muscles emerging, or simply notice your clothes fitting better. Chances are, the more you go to the gym, the more you'll want to go. And you'll wonder why you ever hesitated in the first place.

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