Six Steps to a Successful Start at the Gym

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You've made the decision. It's time to head to the gym. Congratulations on making a choice that can do you a world of good! But before you sign up for your first class or pick up your first free weight, there are six important steps to take that will ensure your safety and help you make this decision a lasting one.

1) Check in with the doctor

Yes, it's easy to dismiss this step, but a physical exam is vital, especially if you're over 50 or have health problems. A clean bill of health will assure you that you're in good enough shape to start getting in shape. If there are problems, you need to catch them before you start working out. You may need to get some issues under control, or be prepared to modify some activities, particularly at the beginning of your long-term fitness program.

Checking in with the doctor can feel like an unnecessary burden--both in time lost and in money spent--but if you have medical issues such as high blood pressure or heart problems, it's better to discover them in the doctor's office than on the gym floor.

2) Do your research

The range of classes and equipment at any facility can feel overwhelming, especially to someone who last worked out in high school gym class. Pick up some fitness magazines and learn about good options for beginners. Visit a few gyms before you sign up, both for a fee comparison and to familiarize yourself with the atmosphere. Talk to people who've used the gym for a while, and those who are just starting out. Did they receive comprehensive training and support when they first joined? Did that support continue?

3) Check your equipment

Ditch the temptation to pull out your aging Nikes and the sweats you wore all last winter. To stay safe and perform at your peak, you'll need shoes and equipment that are built for what you need. But don't just wander down to the sporting goods store and grab what looks good. Talk to the gym trainers and get a list of what you'll need. Make sure you ask them to recommend items for a beginner. You'll work up to the more advanced equipment sooner than you expect.

4) Warm up in your neighborhood

You don't have to stay inactive while you're deciding which gym to join and waiting to see your doctor. Take the time you plan to spend at the gym, schedule it into your day, and use it to start walking. (Slowly and gently, of course, short distances at first, and only if you had a clean bill of health in the recent past.) Sure, walking doesn't have the same glamour as a spinning class or Pilates or strength training, but it's free, requires no special equipment other than good shoes, and gets you into the habit of being active. It's a great way to start building up your endurance and may help you drop a couple of pounds before you dive into more taxing activities at the gym.

5) Call on a friend

Starting back at the gym can be daunting, especially if you feel like you have NEWBIE stamped across your forehead. Find a friend who also wants to take the plunge. Not only are you more likely to go to the gym if someone is depending on you, but you're less likely to push yourself too hard or too fast if there's at least one other person working at your level.

6) Check your ego at the door

Don't expect to walk in and be able to keep up with those hard bodies who've been working out for years. Not only is this unrealistic, but trying to keep up with the gym superstars can be dangerous. Prepare to go slow and gentle at first, working toward a steady increase in difficulty and endurance. Play it smart, and soon the newbies at the gym will be wishing they could keep up with you.

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