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Eight great ways to conquer gym intimidation

Sometimes the one thing holding us back from achieving our fitness goals is the means to the goal itself. For many of us, that’s the gym.

Traditionally, gym memberships spike at the start of the New Year. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association reports about 1 million people - or 50 percent of the national total gym membership - join health clubs in January with aspirations to reach New Year’s resolutions or get their bodies ready for swimsuit season.

However, aspiration and action are two different things.

Despite our intentions, for many of us, the gym evokes an image of a large, scary, sweaty place filled with über-fit people who appear so comfortable that the gym seems like their second home. There are brawny men who dominate the weight room, often darting an evil eye if you happen to encroach on their weight lifting space. Even treadmills now have new bells and whistles that could easily intimate those who are looking for an excuse to go home!

For many Americans - no matter their age, fitness level, or gender - the gym can be a place that evokes feelings of fear, not fitness.

Genie Lovorn is a 66-year-old grandmother who found even her small neighborhood gym a threatening place.

“The gym was Greek to me. I grew up in a generation without gyms,” said Lovorn, a Rancho Penasquitos resident who started a fitness program later in life after learning she had high blood pressure. “I didn’t know anyone in the gym, and I was really intimidated because I weighed too much - even though I knew that was part of the reason I was there.”

Lovorn was ultimately successful in her quest to get fit, but her initial gym sentiments are echoed across the nation. To help those who struggle with gym intimidation, I’ve recruited two local fitness experts to offer tips on how to break down the psychological barriers that can prevent you from reaching your fitness goals.

Meet the experts: Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., is an exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise, located in Kearny Mesa. Cindy Whitmarsh is a San Diego-based certified personal trainer and licensed sports nutritionist who owns Ultrafit Nutrition Systems, a nutrition consulting business.

#1: Assess your readiness to change your current lifestyle.

Before even grabbing the car keys to head to the gym, Comana suggests having an honest conversation with yourself about why you are embarking on this fitness mission. Ask yourself, why do I want to change my current lifestyle? Who am I doing this for - is it for me or for someone else?

“If you aren’t committed to making the necessary sacrifices to adhere to a new fitness program and you’re not really doing it for yourself, then the likelihood of long-term adherence is poor,” said Comana via e-mail.

Mentally putting yourself in a place where you are committed to reaching your fitness goals and identifying any barriers or obstacles that stand in your way is one step toward conquering gym intimidation. If you are committed to exercise psychologically, the physical part becomes easier to attain.

#2: Take the SMART approach and set some goals.

Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around your new fitness endeavor, Comana suggests following the “SMART” approach to goal-setting.

The first step is to be Specific about what you want to accomplish - for example, you may set a goal of being physically active twice a week to start. Next, make that goal Measurable. How long do you want to workout - 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes? Then be Adjustable. What will you do if you miss your specific goal? You must also be Realistic. Make your goals do-able and reasonable. Finally, set a Timeframe for enacting your new program. Comana suggests a preliminary timeline of four weeks.

“During the first two to four weeks, specific physiological changes may start occurring that elevate your mood and energy levels, while psychologically, you are developing self-efficacy with this behavior,” said Comana, who defines self-efficacy as the belief one has to do a task such as exercise. “Your goal for the first four weeks is to create a good exercise experience to positively influence your emotions.”

#3: Try an “easy start” approach before hitting the gym.

While you may be mentally prepared with your fitness goals in place, you may still be apprehensive about how you look physically and what reaction you will get in the gym. You may find it easier to start the process by doing physical activity around the house or outdoors to get your body and mind ready for exercising in a gym setting.

Lovorn remembers a former personal trainer telling her if she didn’t feel comfortable doing anything, to simply go for a walk. By walking outside, Lovorn was able to build up her cardio endurance to half an hour, and soon she felt comfortable transitioning to a treadmill in the gym.

By knowing that you can accomplish manageable fitness goals on your own is one way to feel more confident about working out in the gym. Start with simple activities like a walk around your neighborhood, gardening or even playing a Wii-Fit game to jumpstart your fitness routine - and maybe lose a few pounds in the process! Keep doing these activities until you feel more comfortable about making the transition to exercising in the gym. Lovorn now walks for up to 40 minutes on the treadmill and incorporates inclines to challenge herself. She has since lost 33 pounds and her blood pressure is down to a healthy level.

#4: Find a gym that fits you.

You wouldn’t buy a new car without a test drive, so why would you join a gym without exploring every amenity it has to offer? Start by requesting a free guest pass or one-week trial membership, which most clubs are willing to provide. Take advantage of that week-long pass to try the gym ideally at different times of the day to see how crowded it gets or try a few of the group workouts offered. Don’t commit to any long-term contracts before you’re sure the gym is right for you. And don’t be afraid to talk to other gym members, suggests Comana. They will give you honest feedback as far as their likes and dislikes about that particular gym.

Whitmarsh says that one point of intimidation for women may be the male-dominated weight room. She suggests those women find a gym that has a female-only weight room.

“Most big gyms have a weightlifting room that is private and for women only,” said Whitmarsh, who is the nutrition and fitness consultant for the San Diego Chargers Girls and a regular fitness expert on KUSI News. “This is a great way to feel secure and help build your confidence to move to the big weight room.”

Also, try scheduling your workouts early in the morning or in the late afternoon to avoid crowds.

For more information on how to find the right health club for you, head to the American Council on Exercise website and search their “Get Fit” tips at www.acefitness.org/getfit.

#5: Hire a certified personal trainer.

Working with a certified personal trainer even just two or three times can help you get acquainted - or for some, reacquainted - with the latest cardio and weight equipment, learn a new routine, perfect your form and generally make you feel more knowledgeable and confident about what you are doing. Often when you join a new gym, you can get up to two free personal training sessions included with your membership.

“Every good gym usually has a free fitness evaluation and program set up [when you sign up for membership],” said Whitmarsh. ”You just have to ask and they will set you up with a personal trainer who can show you how to use the equipment and even provide a fitness evaluation that will show you what you should focus on so you can set some goals for yourself.”

#6: Participate in group exercise classes.

A great way to build your gym comfort zone is by taking a few group exercise classes. Group workouts are a great way to not only get into shape and bump elbows with fellow gym goers, but to also avoid the deer in the headlights look when you walk into a big gym and don’t know where to start.

Fitness experts also say that staying fit is all about finding activities that you enjoy doing and reaping the fitness benefits from them. Do you like to ride a bike, swim or dance? Then explore what group exercise options are available to you in your current or prospective gym to pursue those activities. For example, does your gym offer group spin workouts, does it have a lap pool with a Master’s swim class, or is there a dance-based group workout offered, like the latest Latin-inspired Zumba dance class? Doing an activity that you enjoy will help you beat boredom and burnout.

#7: Find a workout partner.

The buddy system has been a proven motivational source for those often intimidated by or unmotivated to get into the gym. Whitmarsh advocates finding a friend with the same goals as you - whether it’s to lose weight, to train for a race or just get into the gym more regularly.

“If you are lost, you can at least have fun finding your way together,” adds Whitmarsh.

Having a workout partner makes you more likely to stick to a routine because you are accountable to someone else. It could be your friend, your mom, a neighbor or someone you met in a group fitness class or in the gym locker room. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to members who you think may be similar to you.

Lovorn adopted her new exercise routine by watching what other women were doing in her gym. She eventually felt confident enough to introduce herself and ask them some questions about their workouts.

“The biggest thing is to find camaraderie in the gym,” said Lovorn, who credits her newfound friendships with the women in her gym with helping her overcome her fears and meet her fitness goals.

#8: Observe and learn to speak the lingo.

“Go to the cardio area, which in most gyms usually overlooks the entire facility, and watch people working out,” advises Whitmarsh. “This way you can find someone who looks the way you want to look and you can watch what they do. You could even write down the exercises they do and take that with you in the gym when you are ready.”

For those who are new to strength training, Whitmarsh suggests purchasing a weight lifting book or magazine with photos that show proper movements and form. Consider taking it with you to the gym or write down a few exercises on a notepad to follow in the weight room. There are even smartphone applications like FitSync that allow you to access training programs and log your workouts for easy reference.

Finally, try learning a little weight room “lingo,” such as what “reps” (or repetitions of an exercise) and “sets” (a group of repetitions of a specific exercise) mean. That way, if someone asks to get in on your machine to do a “set,” you will know what they’re talking about. You’ll find that most of the time, the people you feel intimidated by in the gym are really only focused on their own workouts.

As you can see, the trick to beating gym intimidation is really all mental. Now hold your head high and hit that gym with a purpose and confidence!

Cassie Piercey is an SDNN contributing writer.