I racked up a few decades before I ever went to a gym. Like a lot of women, I thought of gyms as places where hyper-fit people in skin-tight togs went to feel the burn. No part of that appealed to me. But then my daughter took a weight-training class in college and lured me in. I haven't been without a gym membership since.
I belong to a community fitness center now, but I started out at a typical shopping center gym, which was fine until it went out of business. Next I tried the YMCA, a women's only establishment, and a big-chain gym. After that, I went to a bare-bones gym near my house where serious lifters hung out in their weight-training belts and ripped T-shirts. They were very sweet to me.
These establishments were about as different as such places can be, but they were alike in some very important ways. Here's what I've learned from the gyms I've loved.
No one really cares what you look like.
Every gym has a few members who could be on the cover of a fitness magazine, but a good gym has a variety of clients — old and young, fit and fluffy. You have to get over the idea that you're going to be judged for the way you look. For the most part, if you are obviously older or less fit than average, people tend to be extra nice and encouraging. If there are a few members who are there just to demonstrate that they can rock their joggers, they will be too self-centered to notice you.
You can have gain without pain.
While we once thought that you could gauge how much strength you were gaining by “the burn,” we now know that pain is a really bad way to judge how effective your workout is. Other than the good feeling of having pushed a muscle a little harder than usual, exercise shouldn't hurt. In fact, working out triggers the release of endorphins, which have been called feel-good hormones. I find my endorphins kick in after about half an hour, and my workout gets easier. Your mileage may vary.
It's not about big weights.
It's perfectly okay — and safer — to use light weights and more reps. In fact, exercises that utilize your body weight instead of machines or dumbbells are being recognized as some of the best for overall fitness. If you've ever done a series of squats, lunges or planks, you know why!
For women especially, exercise isn't all about the muscles. It's about strengthening our bones and connective tissue as well. It's about cardio and balance and flexibility. Of course, all of these are related to muscle strength, but pumping iron is just part of the picture.
There's another big reason to go to the gym.
One of the best things about gyms is that there are other people there! Research has shown that one predictor of a long, healthy life is a person's social connectedness, and many women have made significant friendships at the gym. In my group classes, we mostly laugh, but occasionally we cry or pray for each other. Sweating together builds some powerful bonds.
Gym friends can also help if you have trouble following through on your commitment to exercise. I'm much more likely to go to class if someone is expecting me to be there. I also know that I'm going to get teased by text if I don't show up!
Working out with a single friend or significant other is fun, too. My daughter will always be my favorite exercise partner, especially because she started me down this road, but I've worked out with friends and even with my grandchildren. It's important to find someone with a similar style, though. My husband and I aren't good workout partners, because I have my routine and he's more spontaneous. That's okay; we can go to the gym together and work out separately.
You can try before you buy.
If you've never had a gym membership, it's a good idea to try before you buy. Sign up for a trial membership, or find a gym that will let you purchase day passes. Some people think that if they go ahead and pay for six months or a year, they will show up to get their money's worth; millions of inactive gym memberships say that's not true.
Some people will never like the gym, and that's okay. Maybe they would rather be outdoors or exercising in the privacy of their own home.
For me, though, a gym is a special place. It's an area devoted to a particular purpose, where I carve out time to do something just for me. It's a place where I can forget any worries while I focus on movement. It's an arena where I am in control and in touch with my body. These are just some of the reasons why I love the gym.
Give it a try — you might just love it, too.
This post was written by Susan Adcox, a grandmother of seven, who frequently writes about healthy aging. She is a multiple sclerosis patient who believes that her gym habit has helped her manage her disease.