No More Gym Intimidation

Fitness centers work to help beginners feel at ease.

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Joann Goodman remembers the first time she ventured into a gym. It was in the 1970s, when leotards, tights, and leg warmers were in vogue. But it wasn't just the fashions that made Goodman feel like fleeing.

"I hated getting undressed in front of other women," says Goodman, now 55. "And I looked around and wondered, 'Where are all the fat people?'"

Goodman not only hated that gym experience, she also says she loathes exercise. Yet the former social worker began working out regularly about 1.5 years ago, after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. "I've dropped 75 to 80 pounds, my diabetes is in check, my arthritic knees are better, my blood pressure is down, and in terms of my emotional health, I can't even describe the change," she tells WebMD.

Her success has come from working three to four times a week with a trainer in an Austin, Texas, exercise studio called Goddessfit. Studio owner Connie Barron describes the purple and turquoise decor as "colors that would make a man run for cover." Sessions are private and tailored to individual preferences. For example, once Barron learned her exercise-phobic client enjoyed dancing, that became the basis of Goodman's aerobic workout.

Barron's studio is just one exercise emporium that is working to help take the intimidation out of fitness, especially for beginners. That's quite a change for an industry long known for its ads showcasing perfectly buff bodies.

Redefining the Market

One catalyst for this change, experts agree, has been the runaway success of the Texas-based Curves for Women gym franchise.

Business analysts had proclaimed the fitness industry oversaturated when Curves began franchising in 1995. Yet Curves has since redefined the market by catering to a group that previously shied away from gyms: overweight, middle-aged women -- no men (or mirrors) allowed. Today, the chain that made the 30-minute workout famous, boasts of more than 7,000 locations.

The circuit training program at Curves alternates 30-second intervals on resistance machines with bouts of light aerobic exercise. The full workout -- twice around the circuit -- takes 30 minutes.

"Several larger gyms have circuit approaches similar to Curves," says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. And yes, he says, beginners can get health benefits from the 30-minute workout -- especially if they add half-hour walks and/or bike rides around the neighborhood as they become more fit.

But the lure of Curves goes beyond the workout. "A large part of the appeal," Bryant says, "is working out with people who don't look like the spandex-clad women you might see in other facilities. You can feel you're amongst a peer group you can relate to."

That's the feeling the 24 Hour Fitness chain is aiming for, says Kevin Steele, PhD, vice president of sales. "We go out of our way to create an inclusive environment," he says. "It begins with our ads, which show people of all ages doing different kinds of activities. When you enter one of our facilities, you'll see a spacious, wide-open area with high ceilings, and relaxing, neutral colors -- not an intimidating cave-like area where buff guys are lifting weights." Further more, he says, "[their] newer facilities have pools, which are very good for people who are severely overweight because water neutralizes their weight as they do aquatic exercises." Even Gold's Gym, the bodybuilders' haven made famous by the movie Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger, is working to accommodate nonathletes. Some locations provide child care, and programs such as Pilates and yoga.

Still not convinced? Experts say the benefits of going to a gym can far outweigh the initial discomfort.

At a good gym, you will get guidance about the proper way to exercise to prevent injury. You'll also get a comprehensive program --combining strength training, aerobics, and stretching -- for maximum health and fitness benefits. And you may see quicker progress toward your goals.

"One thing they teach people is the importance of resistance training," says Bryant. "We know it helps preserve and increase lean muscle mass, so you become a better calorie burner. People who are overweight will see quick success."

The gym is also a great place to meet people who will support you. Staff and fellow exercisers can lend motivation and encouragement that you won't get working out alone at home with an exercise video or treadmill.

Experts say that you should choose a gym and exercise programs based on your goals, motivation, and needs. What may work for your spouse or best friend isn't necessarily for you.