To find out what mistakes first-time gym members are most notorious for making, I sought out insight from two industry experts: Dustin Martin, co-owner & instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp Boston and Ed Halper, M. Ed., Certified Personal Trainer and proprietor of Mountain Fitness in Warren, New Jersey. These are the fitness-first-timer mistakes they say you should absolutely avoid.
Put simply, be aware of the fact that achieving your new fitness goals, especially if you’re just starting out for the first time, is going to take time. You won’t transform overnight, so be realistic about what you’re setting out to achieve. As Martin notes, you may not see any significant changes over the first few weeks, but don’t let a lack of visible progress deflate your motivation. Similarly, don’t expect to overhaul all of your bad habits at once. Slowly integrate new practices (like exercising three days each week or incorporating a serving of vegetables in one meal each day) one at a time instead going to extremes, like vowing to exercise every single day and eat only salad.
“A steady and consistent workout plan and diet are much more effective than extremes,” says Martin. “Find a workout facility that is convenient to your home or work, and plan your meals ahead of time. Stock your pantry and fridge with healthy options. Plan your weeks and workouts ahead of time.”
Martin says that cardio is only one part of the exercise picture. “The metabolic lift from weight training is extremely important,” he explains. “And just three days of weight training a week can have your metabolism revving for the entire week.
Keep in mind that you’re not in a competition with anyone else in the gym. Be honest about where your fitness level is and choose workouts that appropriately meet your needs. “Start at a level that is challenging but allows you to keep proper
form,” says Martin.
“There are many workouts that are effective in just 30 to 45 minutes,” says Martin. “You do not have to carve out hours every day for the gym. Again, consistency is key and a well-planned 45 minutes is better than an hour and a half of wandering around.”
“Give back to your body,” Martin says. “Find 5 to 10 minutes to stretch and relax at the end of each workout. Your body will thank you.”
“Learning to exercise is like learning to drive,” says Halper. “It’s relatively easy, but very risky without any instruction.” He recommends first getting clearance from your doctor before starting an exercise program. “And make sure you join a club that offers a full orientation with a certified personal trainer,” he said. The trainer can help evaluate your fitness level and teach you proper form for basic exercises.
“Often, beginning exercisers are encouraged to start by a more experienced friend,” Halper explains. “While this is certainly a positive, following their workout may not be. You have to remember that your friend may have much more experience in the gym and can handle a larger workload. Trying to keep up on something explosive like squat jumps or lunges is only inviting injury.”
Halper points out that joining the gym for the first time can be intimidating, but you should never let that stop you from asking a staff member for help. "Doing an exercise wrong, particularly when working with free weights, can do more harm than good,” he said. “Break up the staffer's conversation behind the desk and ask a question. That's what the employees are there for.”
“There is no perfect exercise,” says Halper. “Your body benefits most from a mix of cardiovascular and strength-training, along with balance and flexibility work. Doing one thing repetitively can get stale quickly—the body stops improving and the mind gets bored. Try to mix in three different cardio machines in the course of a week, and switch between machines, bands, free weights and body weight exercises for strength training. Use the stability and BOSU balls for balance work, and don't forget your stretching.”