Thinking About Joining A Gym This New Year?

My Best Friend Kelrick got this figurine for me in a little shop in Astoria, Queens.  Sadly I don't know the artist.
My Best Friend Kelrick got this figurine for me in a little shop in Astoria, Queens. Sadly I don’t know the artist.

As you may have noticed, I’m taking a bit of a break from new blog posts.  I’ll be back with new stuff in the new year, for now, another annual tradition post:  A lot of people make a New Years Resolution to join a gym or to go to a gym more.

This is a, well, let’s call it a unique time of year to join a gym because at the moment gyms are  packed to the gills with people. It does die down – by mid-February you won’t be waiting in lines for equipment, there won’t be a line at the front desk to check in, and you will be able to get a bike in spin class without showing up 2 hours early and tying people to poles in the locker room.

For many people the gym is a big scary place.  I’m a gym rat from way back so for me it’s really more like home.  All the sights, sounds – yes even the smells – of the gym make me feel comfortable.  If you read this blog regularly then you know that I don’t think that going to the gym, or any kind of movement or exercise, is any kind of obligation – whether or not someone chooses to move their body within their ability is absolutely their choice (and is a choice that can be limited by external circumstances) and all choices are valid.  I’m writing this because I just don’t want someone who wants to go to the gym to skip it because the gym seems so unfriendly.  Here is some stuff that might help:

Choosing a Gym

This is a matter of money, vibe, location, and what you need in a gym. Typically more money means more amenities so decide what you want.  I once toured a gym that had a $10/month membership fee but didn’t have locker rooms.  That obviously works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.  There are gyms that are snotty, gyms that are laid back, gyms that are more based on group exercise and gyms that don’t even have a cardio room.  Some have a pool, some have a pilates center etc.

It’s worth it to take the time to check out the gyms in your area and see what’s available (a lot of this can be done online.)  Some of them will have incredibly pushy salespeople who say that you can only get this special if you sign up Right.  This.  Second.  Ask to speak to a manager and ask what’s wrong with their gym that they don’t think it will stand up to a little comparison shopping.  Then ask for the deal in writing and two weeks to make a decision.  Be prepared to negotiate down to a week or so and your mileage may vary, but this has always worked for me.

Being a Newbie:

First, try to have some old timer empathy.  Imagine if you shopped at a store 5 times a week every week for years.  Then all of a sudden the store is filled with new people who don’t know where anything is, they start moving things around etc.  Suddenly your 30 minute shopping trip takes 2 hours and the things that you buy 5 times a week are all sold out.  Of course it’s nobody’s fault, you have every right to be there and use the gym, and it’s not an excuse to be an ass, but some empathy can help.  I, like many old-timers, are glad that the newbies are there, and appreciate it when we all follow some basic etiquette:

Take a deep breath, everyone around you was once a Newbie too – none of us was born knowing how to adjust machines that look complicated enough to require launch codes.  If your gym offers classes to help you learn to use the equipment, it may behoove you to take them.  If you aren’t sure how to adjust a machine:  Do ask a friendly looking person.  Do ask someone at the front desk for help.  Don’t ask a personal trainer who is in session – remember that someone is paying that person for their undivided attention.

Look around before you just start grabbing things and moving them around. Think of it as a new job, you learn the office etiquette before you start playing your radio, making coffee, taking breaks etc. It’s the same at the gym–figure out what’s appropriate before you re-arrange furniture like it’s “Trading Spaces–the Weight Room Addition”.

When you go into a group class for the first time, it may help to stand back around the edges for a little while to get the lay of the land, let the regulars get their spots etc.  Pay attention to things like how far apart people tend to stand – unless you want to tell your grandkids about that time you got kicked in the head in step class.

People might say ridiculous things to you.  While it’s pretty rare that someone says or behaves in a way that is mean, plenty of people may behave in a way that is annoying.  Some people may congratulate you for starting an exercise program (even if you’ve had an exercise plan for the last 10 years)  or encourage you on your weight loss, even though you aren’t interested in manipulating your body size. While this is a very real concern, I personally think that if I stay home because people might be jerks, I’m the one who loses out in the end, so I strategize.

Of course it’s your choice how you deal with this: thank them while you think really hard about rolling your eyes, use it as a teachable moment for Health at Every Size/Size Acceptance, put Bengay on their sweat towel (that was a joke, please don’t actually do that).  I typically prefer teachable moments, but whatever you choose I would recommend deciding beforehand and practicing.  It’s harder than you might think to say what you intended to say when you are sweaty, exhausted, and surprised by a perfect stranger weighing in on their assumptions about your life choices.

Crap Old-Timers Try to Get Away With

Most old-timers are going be on a spectrum from awesome to at-least-they-leave-you-alone.  Sometimes old-timers will try to get away with the following behaviors.  Here’s what you might do:

Time limit?  What time limit?

This one is usually accompanied by a look of wide-eyed innocence.  During this time of year many gyms put time limits on their cardio machines.  People who’ve been around awhile tend to try to get around this by:  putting their towel over the clock, restarting the timer every 10 minutes, or just ignoring it thinking nobody will say anything.

You can handle this directly with them (excuse me, but can I take a look at the timer on your machine to see what kind of wait I’m looking at?  I’m sorry, you may not have noticed but you’re over the time limit).  Or you can tell the good people at the front desk.*

Opposing Muscle Musical Chairs

A lot of resistance training programs are based around working opposing muscle groups.  Some people like to alternate between the two (one set of biceps/one set of triceps, lather rinse repeat) so they will work on one machine and leave their water bottle and towel on the other.  This is not cool.

You can deal with it directly (Normally I ask “may I set in” – in other regions they say “may I work in” – but if someone is pulling this you can just say “I’m going to set in on this machine” or don’t say anything, just move their stuff and start working out, or ask the nice people at the front desk to deal with it.*

Mine. All Mine.  My Precious.

Some types of weight lifting require the person lifting to use a number of different weights.  While that’s fine, it is NOT FINE to get 12 sets of weights and put them under your bench at peak times at the gym.

Again, I typically come by and ask “Mind if I use this” indicating the weights that I need.  You can also talk to the people at the front desk.*

*A note on talking to the front desk people about your issues.  I don’t particularly recommend it unless someone’s behavior is egregious or they don’t respond to polite inquiry.  Most people will start to act like they’ve had some home training if they are gently confronted.

A last note:  I’ve noticed at my gym, it’s as if every year there’s a “newbie class” who meet each other and then wave and say hi at the gym forever.  It’s not that they all hang out or even chat very much, it’s just that in 2008 they all survived being gym newbies who work out around 6pm, and now they are bonded.  It’s pretty cool.  I’m an early morning or late night worker outer.  We seem to have a camaraderie all our own.  While we basically communicate only through grunting and pointing,  when you lift weights with someone at 3 in the morning a few times a week for a while, you’ve bonded.

A last, last note about the gym and Health At Every Size.  The gym is NOT the only path to fitness.  So if you think it would be fun to take water aerobics or spin class, if you love the elliptical or  the idea of getting strong through weight lifting then I highly encourage you to try the gym.  If you want to move more but you’d rather have a root canal than come to the gym then it’s completely cool for you to find a movement option that makes you happy!

If you want some support, feel free to check out Fit Fatties, it is a fun and supportive group, founded by two fathletes, for people of all sizes who are interested in talking about fitness from a weight neutral perspective.

Like this blog?  Here’s more cool stuff:

Become a Member! For ten bucks a month you can support fat activism and get deals from size positive businesses as a thank you.  Click here for details

Book and Dance Class Sale!  I’m on a journey to complete an IRONMAN triathlon, and I’m having a sale on all my books, DVDs, and digital downloads to help pay for it. You get books and dance classes, I get spandex clothes and bike parts. Everybody wins! If you want, you can check it out here!

Book Me!  I’d love to speak to your organization. You can get more information here or just e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org!

I’m training for an IRONMAN! You can follow my journey at

If you are uncomfortable with my offering things for sale on this site, you are invited to check out this post.

2 thoughts on “Thinking About Joining A Gym This New Year?

  1. A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to switch up my exercise routine and join a gym. A friend who is a personal trainer gave me this advice: Try before you buy, and try a lot of them. What I did was dedicate a month to trying out new ones. If a gym didn’t have a “free trial day” or “free class” option, I didn’t bother with them. (I live in an area where there are lots of options. YMMV.) When they tried to sell me on it afterwards, I walked out saying that I was trying many gyms and would decide at the end of that trial. In the end, I settled on one was entirely about group exercise in a cardio/weights combination, that stressed working at your own pace and using modifications as necessary. I felt encouraged to push myself, but not judged for, say, walking instead of running on a treadmill. One gym felt very snooty to me, so I walked out halfway through my routine.

    I like Ragan’s tips here, and it follows what I’ve always thought was good advice and that is to be your own advocate. (Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but it’s always worth doing.)

  2. If you’re just getting started on weight training, I recommend finding a gym that has weight machines, designed so that you cannot possibly drop them on your foot.

    Free weights are, in my opinion, for more experienced people.

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