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How I Learned To Love The Gym

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    This article was originally published on December 4, 2015.

    For years, gyms intimidated me. They struck me as destinations for type-As with money. Just walking by them triggered feelings of regrettable laziness. Plus, I carried a lifetime of shame about the curvy shape of my body, not to mention a layer of embarrassment about my inability to accept it. Gyms seemed like a Hunger Games of judgment for all of this, and the odds were never in my favor.

    But in January of 2015, several months into a winter that was too snowy for walking outdoors, my main form of exercise, I had a revelation. I read a fat friend’s blog about training for an Ironman (because she enjoyed the challenge, not because she wanted to lose weight), and I realized that I could exercise for reasons other than changing the shape of my body. I wanted to sleep better, hit the top of the subway stairs without getting winded, and generally feel less sedentary. Maybe judging myself didn’t have to be the starting point for exercise.

    I explained all this to a friend [Ed. note: Full disclosure, said friend may or may not be Refinery29’s wellness director], also divulging that I feared there were secret rules about the gym that I didn’t know about. I also mentioned that I wasn't sure what one actually does in a gym. She replied, “You need a gym doula,” and offered her services.

    We went to a nearby gym on a weekday afternoon, when it wouldn’t be crowded. I was sweating from nerves before we started, and as we walked in the door, I desperately wanted to cry. My friend, bless her, pretended I wasn’t acting like an anxious dog during a severe thunderstorm. Instead, starting in the locker room, she walked me through the whole gym. Then she took me through a few exercises and pointed out the etiquette rules I feared I’d never grasp. Incredibly, I didn’t pass out. I didn’t cry. Coming back alone seemed scary, but doable.

    I’ve now logged nearly 12 months of regular gym time, and I’ve visited gyms in a half-dozen cities. Here are the key things I’ve learned about overcoming gym intimidation (gymtimidation?) — no pricey personal-training sessions required.



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    Try The Buddy System
    Meeting my friend put the gym on my calendar; it's hard to back out when someone else has committed already. Even better, she acted as a physical shield for my initial self-consciousness. If anybody was watching me, I couldn’t tell, because I was paying attention to my "doula." In addition, her patient answers to my inane questions helped me realize that my fears about missing gym social cues were overblown.

    My friend also took me to a yoga class a few days later, which was surprisingly helpful. Most group classes start with everyone gathering equipment according to some unwritten code, and then sitting around in deafening silence waiting for the instructor. Following somebody else’s lead made all of that un-awkward.

    If you don’t have a non-judgmental friend who’s knowledgeable about fitness and available to meet you at a convenient gym, consider an initial session with a trainer. Many gyms offer a free session when you join or let you buy a session as a guest (on that note, most gyms also give you a free trial day — so money shouldn’t be a barrier for the first visit).

    But steel yourself: Trainers are usually paid by the session, and they can be intense salespeople. Call ahead and explain what you’re looking for. Then, be prepared to explain to the trainer, possibly several times, that you want just one session — and insist on having him or her show you things you can do on your own. (If you sign up for a training package, know that it may take a few tries to find a trainer who’s a good fit.)

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    Start Small & Build On Success
    After our reconnaissance gym visit, I debated whether to join. Could I afford it? Would I actually go? My friend suggested I try a month-to-month plan and go at least twice a week. I had pictured trying to go five days a week — and failing. But twice a week, maybe even three times, I could do. After a few months of semi-weekly workouts, I was able to ramp up to four or five times per week. (Incidentally, I joined a pretty basic gym down the block, because I figured if I could easily go in any weather and didn’t have to carry stuff to shower and change, I’d go more often. But it’s totally legit to prioritize a lap pool or spa services — whatever helps you stay motivated.)

    It was also important to do exercises that made me want to stick through the whole workout and try again. Basically, if I felt like I was dying, I didn’t want return to the gym, ever. My style now: sweaty and hard, but not near-fatal.

    To keep up my momentum, I consider the gym a treat that makes me feel better on the days I go — so the reward is immediate, not months away. I hit on this mindset by accident, but research shows it works.

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    Know That It Gets More Comfortable
    The first few times I went to the gym, I wished there weren’t any men or, ideally, any other people there at all. But after a few visits, it became obvious that nobody cared about my workout. Not because I’m not a gym hottie, but because everybody is focused on their own pain. When you’ve got “Anaconda” blasting over your headphones, your quads are cramping, and you’re wheezing, you really don’t care what anybody else is doing. Which is everyone’s situation.

    When I’ve occasionally clued into the people around me, I’ve observed this: Fitness doesn’t always look like a Shape cover. A lot of thin people can’t do anything impressive, while a lot of lumpy people can go hard on the machines, lift heavy weights, and show enviable flexibility. While I’m embarrassed to say that that surprised me, it’s also encouraged me.

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    Create A Plan
    Some people seek variety at the gym and like to improvise. But I prefer having a plan and a steady routine, both because I like being able to gauge progress, and because I don't have to make decisions about what to do, which helps me power through.

    Frankly, though, finding a good routine — your ideal mix of cardio, strength, and flexibility — can take a while. On my very first visit to the gym, my friend took me through a dynamic warm-up, a short stint on an elliptical machine (having somebody explain the interface is essential), a round of free weights (friend: “It’s very satisfying to pick things up and put them down”) and some cool-down stretches. I used this basic routine for a while, and I also tried a number of classes, most of which were humiliating.

    But Pilates classes didn’t actively make me want to cry. Plus, they focus on core strength, which I really needed. After a few weeks, my practice improved. That progress prompted me to refine the rest of my routine to make Pilates more fun. I also do HIIT intervals on a bike, lift heavier weights over time, and do a few core-strength-focused exercises.

    To get workout ideas and to shore up my techniques, I get advice from a physical therapist, videos, a book, and fitness blogs. Also, for new exercises, I keep notes on my phone and check them regularly at the gym. (Without precise instructions, I completely forget how to do everything.)

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    Don’t Forget The Accessories
    What to wear? I’ve always liked leggings of various lengths for exercise, and I used to top them with baggy T-shirts. But long, relatively slim T-shirts work better, because they stay put, and while I’m agnostic on fabric, some people feel more comfortable in sweat-wicking garments. Also, as a 36DDD, I had to figure out sports bras years ago, just for walking. If you don’t have a great one, don’t skimp; breast pain is a major reason women shy away from exercise.

    What else to bring? A water bottle, headphones, and your phone for sound, timer, and workout notes.

    Podcast or playlist? Nearly everybody listens to something while working out. At first, I tried podcasts, but they didn’t give me enough of a boost for cardio. After creating a playlist of songs that make me feel like dancing, my cycling got stronger. Groove is in the heart.

    I didn’t join a gym in order to change the shape of my body, so there isn’t a big weight-loss reveal here. But I’m no longer out of breath at the top of long staircases, I have more energy, and here's a surprise: My clothes seem a little looser. This might be because I’m getting fitter, or it might be solely because I’m getting more confident about my body and what it can do — a powerful antidote to my own shape shame. The gym, I’ve learned, might be less a place in which to fear judgment than a place in which to shed it.

    Resolutions were made to be broken. This year, want to help you do you — the best you can.
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