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Afraid to get fit? How to conquer your fitness and health club fears

The trouble with exercising isn’t getting started—you’ve probably done that more than once—but sticking with it. Taking local fitness classes or joining a health club may give you the motivational push and variety you need. But perhaps you just can’t get up enough nerve to step into an unfamiliar world of intimidating exercise equipment and fancy aerobic footwork.

It’s normal to feel apprehensive or embarrassed when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, and it takes some courage to walk through those health club doors for the first time. (Hint: Bring a friend with you for support.) But you can overcome apprehension if you arm yourself with certain strategies to tackle your fears and build the confidence you need to get moving. Read on to see how you can conquer your health club phobia.

The fear: “I’m a workout newbie—and I don’t want to look silly or uncoordinated.”

Relax—it only seems as if everyone else knows what they’re doing. Gyms and classes are full of beginners, and unlike the ads you see on TV, most health clubs aren’t swarming with buff bodies.

The fix:

  • Shop around. Not all gyms are the same. Different health clubs have different clientele and atmospheres: Some are large and busy with loud music while others are smaller and quieter with more mature members. Visit the health club at the same time of day you plan to work out since its atmosphere can change with the clock. (Mornings tend to be quieter than evenings with the after-work crowd.) Look for a club that has a friendly, helpful and knowledgeable staff. Gyms normally allow a day pass or a one-to-two-week trial membership so you can try before you buy.
  • Try a ladies-only facility. If you’re a woman who feels self-conscious working out around men, consider a female-only facility. Or if your schedule permits, visit the gym when more women than men work out.
  • Hire a trainer. You’ll learn what to do and how to do it safely. Take advantage of free training sessions offered at many gyms when you sign up.
  • Take a class for workout novices. Your comfort level will increase if you’re among others at your level of ability and conditioning. Look for introductory classes on everything from swimming to yoga to weight training. For intermediate classes, arrive a few minutes early and introduce yourself to the instructor. Don’t be bashful about letting him or her know you’re a newcomer and discussing any concerns you have. This is a perfect opportunity for you to get some one-on-one pointers about equipment use, proper form and safety issues.
  • Do your homework. You wouldn’t sit down to knit a sweater without some instruction, would you? Check out fitness magazines or library books to learn basic exercise form. Don’t just look at the pictures—read the instructions for tips on safe technique.
  • Buddy up with an experienced friend. You’ll be too busy having fun to worry about others watching you.

The fear: “I’d like to work with a trainer—but it scares me.”

Good trainers don’t want you to look or feel stupid. If you land a trainer who makes you feel weak, clumsy or foolish, try talking to him or her. If that doesn’t work, find a new trainer.

The fix:

  • Get a reference. Word-of-mouth is often helpful. Keep an eye on trainers in the gym you may like to work with. Do they seem supportive and at ease with clients? Do they give clients their full attention or seem distracted and bored?
  • Have a consultation first. Discuss your goals, any health limitations you have and your past difficulties with working out. Listen to the responses before writing out a check.
  • Sign up for one session. Don’t commit to more unless you feel strongly that you and your trainer will have a good working relationship. Results won’t come immediately, but you’ll know whether things “feel right.”

The fear: “I’m too unhealthy/too heavy to work out.”

Fitness magazines are full of before-and-after photos of people who were once “too heavy or too unhealthy” to exercise—proving the excuse wrong. You just need to take certain precautions.

The fix:

  • Talk to your doctor. Find out what activities are safest for you right now. Start slowly. If you haven’t exercised in years, a 15-minute walk is a great start. Use a heart monitor if necessary.
  • Get professional help. Doing too much too soon can lead to muscle soreness or fatigue that makes you quit. A knowledgeable trainer considers your health status and level of conditioning when designing your workout program.
  • Consider your needs. Some classes are geared toward people with arthritis, older adults or exercisers who need a low-impact workout.
  • Talk to your instructor. If you have a medical condition such as arthritis or asthma, don’t be shy. Your instructor can also provide modifications if you’re a new exerciser or you need lower impact or lower intensity moves.
  • Go at your own pace. Forget about keeping up with the competitive cyclist or the gym rat next to you.