Last Updated on December 21, 2019 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
As a certified exercise physiologist, the month of January means I’ve spent endless hours at the gym meeting with, counseling, and guiding new or returning fitness seekers (or “New Years Resolutionists“, if you will) through their first day at the gym. This marks my 10th year working in fitness facilities. Over those ten years I’ve met a lot of people with a wide variety of reasons for wanting to join the gym. Weight loss, gaining strength, gaining confidence, training for an event, and so much more. Everyone has their reasons for showing up.
And I’m truly glad they showed up.
But despite the myriad of reasons for these people winding up in front of me, there tends to be a handful of constant concerns about impending “gym life” that are shared by almost everyone. Fears, hesitations, and questions that are confided to me over and over.
Because these concerns are so common, I thought I’d put them out there – as well as my answers – to hopefully reach a wider audience (since you can’t all fit into my office). It is my hope that this post will help ease any questions or fears about your first day at the gym.
Your First Day at the Gym: Four Fitness Truths You Should Know
In no particular order:
1. It’s OK to have mixed feelings about all of this.
I’m not a therapist, psychologist, or professionally trained in any sort of mental health care. My scope of practice there doesn’t go much beyond one single four credit university class in sports psychology. But I can tell you that nine times out of ten, people who come to me seeking help with workouts have some sort of emotional stress attached to fitness. Maybe it’s because they are intimidated by the thought of starting something new (and I’ll be the first to admit, gyms can be wildly intimidating). Perhaps it’s internal shame from weight gain or falling “out of shape”. Maybe they are embarrassed to have other people see them working out. Or just maybe they are overwhelmed by all of the information and misinformation floating around the fitness industry. Because let’s face it: there certainly is a lot of misinformation.
You aren’t alone in these feelings.
There are seemingly a billion reasons why people may experience negative or uncomfortable emotions tied to fitness, and it is not my job to diagnose these reasons (though I do feel very honored that people routinely trust me enough to open up and share these feelings with me). It is my job, however, to reassure these people that these emotions are incredibly common. Acknowledge the feelings, perhaps even share them with someone else, and then get to work. Chances are, a lot of these feelings will dissipate when you become more comfortable with the gym, and begin getting regular exercise back into your daily routine.
2. Yeah, people probably ARE watching you.
I used to always reassure self conscious beginners, whether it was in the gym or outdoors running, that no one is actually watching them.
But I realized over time that this is a lie.
Because the reality is, people probably are watching you. The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that while they are watching, they most likely aren’t judging. It is human nature to observe each other. But I truly believe that rarely is the observation done with malicious intent. Maybe the person looking at you likes your sneakers. Or perhaps they are interested in an exercise you are doing, because they are unfamiliar with it themselves. Maybe you look like someone else they know, and the resemblance is so uncanny, they can’t help but stare. Or maybe they are completely zoned out. I’m guilty of thinking about my “to-do” list to complete later in the day, while absentmindedly looking in your direction. It happens.
IF someone truly is looking at you with judgmental thoughts in their head – and yeah, it does happen -well that’s their problem. Not yours. They probably do the same thing to complete strangers in the grocery store. Or parents at their kids school PTO meeting, or people in the waiting room at the dentist’s office…you get the idea. That sort of judgement is most likely a reflection of their own insecurities. Don’t let that nonsense bring you down.
3. The “best” workout is the one you will do.
I’m often asked about the “best” things are in the fitness world. What’s the best machine? The best class? What’s the best time of day to workout? What’s best, strength first or cardio first? You get the idea. And for beginners, my answer is always the same:
The best one is the one that you will actually do.
Do you enjoy the elliptical, but loathe the treadmill? Then choose the elliptical. Are you terrified of the free weights, but confident enough to use the pin loaded machines? Then stick with the pin loaded. Can’t get out of bed early enough to exercise before work, but you’re able to squeeze it in during your lunch break? Good. Do it then.
When you’re first starting a regular exercise routine, the best thing you can do is to do SOMETHING. Instead of overwhelming yourself with the specifics, what burns the most calories, when is the optimal time of day to workout, what the latest fitness magazine says is the “hottest” new exercise, what your super fit co-worker does: meet yourself where you are today and do what you can, when you can. You are more likely to begin and stick with a consistent routine when that routine is a) enjoyable and b) realistically fits into your life.
Once the consistency sticks and you are motivated to tackle more, then you can worry about the specifics. So on your first day at the gym, pick something that looks fun, or that you know you will enjoy. For now, all that matters is that you move your body.
4. Nutrition matters – but likely not in the way you think it does.
Not all, but many new exercisers join the gym with the goal of weight loss. Now, let me preface this section with a little of my own reality: I run really far, and I eat a lot. I LOVE food, and a lot of the food I love would make most fitness professionals cringe. It is my duty, however, to remind these fitness and weight loss seekers that nutrition is more than half of the weight loss battle. I wish we could “out exercise a bad diet”, but the reality is, most people simply don’t have enough time in the day. So we have to (and should, for health reasons) take nutrition into account.
At this point I’m more often than not met with some sort of well meaning but misinformed diet plan that the individual intends on starting to coincide with their new gym routine. Then it’s my job to inform these people that “plans” such as avoiding carbs altogether, eating nothing but salads, or trying to sustain day to day life on a terrifyingly low caloric intake are not the way to successful weight loss.
Nutrition reality check:
You don’t need to starve yourself or restrict certain food groups in order to lose weight. In fact, you absolutely shouldn’t. But you DO need to recognize that at the end of the day, weight loss is a balance of burning more calories than you consume. And the calories you consume should mainly be healthy foods that will help fuel and sustain your workouts, while providing optimum nutrition to allow your body to heal and become stronger.
It can feel overwhelming – but it doesn’t have to be.
Just like anything in life, making lasting, sustainable changes doesn’t happen overnight, and should be done slowly. And your approach to healthy eating should be realistic, in a “I’m making changes for life, not just for a quick fix” sort of way. If you have general questions regarding how to take steps in the right direction to making healthier decisions: ask your trainer. If you have more specific questions, including wanting a detailed meal plan: ask a registered dietitian. Fun fact: in most states, it is illegal for anyone but a registered dietitian to write you a specific meal plan. Be wary of trainers who step out of their scope of practice by immediately bombarding you with specific (especially restrictive) meal plans, cleanses, detoxes, or supplements that they claim are deal breakers for weight loss.
Listen. Your first day at the gym can be wildly intimidating…or it can be wildly exciting. I encourage people to look at it from the latter point of view, this is the start of a brand new, life changing adventure. Acknowledge your fears and concerns, and know you are NOT alone in these emotions.
And then get to work.
Your body and your mind will thank you!
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.