New Year's Day is upon us, and everywhere we look people are gearing up for Massive Life Change. This year, it's gonna be different. Really a new leaf. Gonna save money, gonna quit smoking, gonna get fit, gonna eat right, gonna bike to work three times a week.
I don't make New Year's resolutions, but I get that for some people that particular modality works. Fresh starts are very appealing. I'm here to talk to you today about one of those things you're all excited about: your gym membership.
My partner and I belong to a gym, and every year the regulars grit their teeth at the arrival of The Resolutioneers. They're on all the machines, struggling and sweating, they're filling up the pool and the locker room, they're clogging your favorite yoga class and harshing your namaste. They swell the ranks of gym-goers for about a month, and then it tapers back to normal by the end of February. Many of the regulars, at that point, breathe a sigh of relief. Now, they say, it will be fine until 'swimwear season' and then again until the holidays next year.
The resolutioneers make me profoundly sad. Not because they're inconveniencing me or crowding a space I use. I don't mind that part so much, because they're enjoying a thing I enjoy. I'm sad because I see them hit the gym like it owes them money, fast and fierce and intent, but never find the grip on a lasting habit. Over the last almost-ten years of gym memberships, I've been watching the resolutioneers to try and figure out why they fail. If you're looking for a shiny new gym, I've got a few tips for you. I'm not a trainer, so they're not tips for working out. I'm someone who loves the gym, so they're tips for how to become one of those.
It starts before you even begin. A lot of people are choosing a gym the wrong way. The absolute first consideration for a gym is "how convenient is this for me to get to?" All other factors take second place to whether a gym is on your way to or from work, near home or the kids' daycare, convenient for a lunch break session on the elliptical. Even the best gym is worthless if *just getting there* is a chore. After that, you look into classes and facilities, does it have childcare, is the facility clean and well-maintained? But first, convenience.
Then, too many of you skip the personal training sessions. Yeah, I get it, it saves a few bucks, but most gyms offer a low-cost introductory training session, in which you're taught how to gym. You're asked to clarify your goals, and figure out what you need to do to meet them. You're given a tour of all the things in your gym. You learn how to set up the weights and use them safely and responsibly. And if your trainer is worth anything, you learn about the importance of gym etiquette.
Not understanding the basic manners of the gym is one of the greatest sources of conflict between regulars and resolutioneers, and it's one of the biggest hurdles on the path to being an active member of your gym. If you're breaking the rules in ways that interfere with other peoples' ability to work out, they won't help you. They won't be open and welcoming. They'll just work around you until you go away.
Listen, we know you're new. We know you don't know what you're doing, because we all remember what WE looked like when we were new and had no idea what we were doing. Some of us have been doing this for a while, and we've learned helpful things we could share with you. We won't share them if you're sitting on a machine for ten minutes checking your phone, or if you're blocking the only available treadmill while you have a conversation with a friend. We won't share them with the person who just walked away leaving the weight bench coated in sweat. We won't share them if you've draped your gym bag over the machine next to you, or if you leave your equipment all over the weight room floor. Pissy and elitist? Maybe, but maybe not. A gym only works if everyone uses the resources cooperatively; most of us are there to work, with a limited amount of time allocated out of the day. We don't have time to explain to five people a day why you need to wipe down the equipment after you sweat on it, or argue with you about not slamming the weights.
If someone asks you, "You need a hand with that?" or "Everything OK?" it likely is a polite way of saying "I see that you are doing this in a way that may hurt you or break the equipment and I'd like to help you not do that," or "I see that you are struggling with something I know how to do." Most of the time the advice they have will make what you're doing feel better, smoother, and less awkward. If it doesn't, ask one of the trainers; they're usually good about one-off questions, especially questions about not breaking things or getting hurt.
Building friendly rapport with your fellow gym-goers goes a long way to making the experience supportive. You don't have to make small talk or have long chatty conversations at the juice bar, but you'll notice people smiling at you, exchanging friendly nods, offering advice or encouragement, and that changes the experience. You become part of a community.
OK, so you've got a convenient gym, you've got an exercise plan, you're making friends, now what? You've got to set and keep sustainable goals and be realistic about your capacity for gym attendance. Every year I talk to someone who says to me, "I've come to the gym EVERY DAY for the last two weeks!!!!!" and I never see them again because they're exhausted and then they miss a day, it turns into two days, and they get demoralized by the 'failure' and give up.
The most important exercise you do at the gym is walking through the door. Just get there. Whether you went yesterday should have no bearing on your attendance tomorrow. Missed a week in a row? I guarantee you no one will judge you if you *walk back through that door*. Missed two weeks? Man, they don't care as long as you *walk back through that door*. Just gonna show up and sit in the hot tub? No one tracks you once you *walk back through that door*.
Decide how many days a week is a reasonable goal, and how many is a 'stretch' goal. On a good week, I work out three times (plus whatever activity I do outside the gym). Most weeks, it's two. So I don't beat myself up if I only go twice, but I applaud myself if I make that third day. Your reasonable schedule should be one that you can keep. If you need to pay for classes, or work with a buddy, or designate scheduled nights to make yourself get into the habit then do it, but GO. A hectic schedule will flex around what you make time for, I promise you.
Make sure you build a varied workout. Use weights or weight machines to build strength, and treadmills, ellipticals, or bikes for cardio and endurance. Balancing the work you do gives better results, and it keeps the gym from being boring. It also helps you set goals that are unrelated to weight loss, and this is essential. I can't tell you how much weight I've lost at the gym, but I can tell you how much my lift numbers and my cardio time have increased.
Learn to use the gym to deal with life stressors. Bad day at work? Move weight till you're not pissed off any more. Family driving you nuts? Plug in the headphones and run away for a little while. Hyper kids? Drop them at the activity center, then hit a yoga or a dance class while they burn off their energy. Pack a gym bag and leave it in your car so you're always ready to stop off and work out.
Set functional rewards for practical goals. It's best if they somehow improve your workout. One full month of three-times-a-week attendance got me my Fitbit so I can track my workouts, and the next attendance goal will get me some new gym clothes. A lot of people do food-based rewards, but that sets up the idea that food and exercise are enemies. Food and exercise are friends because if you don't have calories you can't work out, and if you don't have protein you can't build muscle.
There will come a day when you really don't want to go to the gym. You're tired from your day, you've got a headache, you're down to the crappy sports bra, whatever. Whatever it is, it's not really a reason, just an excuse. There's really nothing keeping you from going except that the sofa is comfy and warm and the Netflix is all queued up. That day, you HAVE to go. That day is your routine-brain trying to get back to what it finds comfortable, and it'll keep coming up with excuses for you. You have to be able to tell routine-brain no.
Then there will come a day when you really want to work out and you can't. You've twisted an ankle, or you're getting over a nasty flu, or a legit workplace crisis eats your workout time. First, congratulations on building your workouts so deeply into your life that you *miss* them when you can't have them. Second, set a return date and stick to it, or that two-day hiatus can turn into weeks. The feeling of accomplishment at that 'first workout back', knowing that you took care of yourself and then came back to the goal, is wonderful.
Lastly, take advantage of your gym's amenities. I wandered into the sauna once, and now it's how I finish every workout because it gives me a quiet, contemplative space to set that good endorphin feeling and carry it with me when I leave. Whirlpools for sore muscles, steam rooms, dry saunas, cooldown pools, try it all and figure out what helps you walk out of the gym feeling energised and clear-headed.
I wish everyone luck and happiness on their 2017 journey, and I hope you find habits that you enjoy and benefit from!