As a professional dancer-turned-personal trainer, Brynn Putnam lives and breathes fitness. Still, she’s not always comfortable attending classes in new cities while traveling. “I find it very challenging to show up at a gym and put myself through a workout — and that’s what I do for a living,” says Putnam, who founded the Refine Method, a New York City high-intensity interval training program. She’s proof that gymgoers of all fitness levels can relate to first-time-class fears, whether they’re worried about keeping up or intimidated by a cliquish atmosphere. Here’s how experts suggest conquering such worries, while also staying safe and getting the most out of the workout:
1. Find the right fit.
Jenna Deutsch figured her first Zumba class would be a fun break from her regular running and weightlifting routine. Reality check: “I spent the whole class embarrassed and getting my butt kicked,” recalls Deutsch, a 26-year-old in Boston, who has since stuck to spin and yoga classes. Indeed, certain types of classes better suit certain people, and some styles like cycling are particularly good for beginners, since no one knows how much resistance you’re adding, says Rob Glick, senior director of group fitness at Life Time, a health club chain. He recommends talking to a studio manager about what offerings best suit your experience and goals.
2. Do your homework.
You wouldn’t show up to the first day of school without completing your reading or buying supplies, so don’t walk into a fitness class unprepared, experts say. Not only does it make instructors nervous since they won’t necessarily know what you can tolerate, but it also puts you at risk for injury and disliking the class enough to write it — and all exercise — off. Instead, first meet with the instructor, take a facility tour, observe a class or invest in private lessons, Putnam suggests. “Fitness businesses are there to serve you … and you should take advantage of that before you walk in the door,” she says.
3. Go with — or make — a friend.
The Refine Method offers incentives for friends and loved ones to join together for good reason: “If you’re able to make the commitment with someone who’s already part of your life and who can cheer you along the way, that makes a big impact,” Putnam says. It can also fight feelings of intimidation. No takers? Ask the gym if it can connect you with a frequent classgoer ahead of time. One Life Time location, for instance, partners new members with volunteer “ambassadors,” who help set up their equipment and support them through the class. “[Make] those authentic connections with people so you have a tribe and you keep coming back,” Glick says.
4. Set realistic expectations.
If for years your definition of cardio has been running to the fridge, don’t expect your first spin class to be a piece of cake. Instead, aim to get through half the first class and build up from there, suggests Marissa Gannon, a personal trainer in Menominee, Michigan. “It’s [about] progressing to where you create that adaptation to the stresses; we have to build the tolerance for it,” she says. Keep in mind, too, that your instructor may not be able to give you one-on-one attention; that’s what personal training and small group fitness is for, Gannon adds. Be sure to tell him or her about any injuries before getting started.
5. Listen to your body.
Good group fitness instructors know how to tailor classes to all levels by demonstrating how to scale exercises up or down in difficulty, Glick says. Bad instructors perpetuate the myth that pain equals gain. “Throw that out the window — pain is pain,” says Gannon, who points out that only you know what’s going on inside your body. If you’ve reached your limit, mentally or physically, don’t be afraid to take a pose that suits you — or leave the class entirely, Gannon says. “It would be better to leave when you’re feeling you need to than continuing through and possibly causing injuries,” she says.
6. Don’t compare.
When you look at a family photo, you judge it based on how good you think you look — right? That’s the comparison Glick uses when new members worry that they’ll stand out in class. “Each individual thinks that everybody is noticing them, but each individual is noticing themselves,” he says. Though it takes practice, Putnam recommends getting over self-consciousness by talking to yourself like you’d talk to someone you love. “Apply that same kindness and compassion to yourself,” she says. As Gannon points out, exercise should make you feel stronger, happier and more invigorated — not discouraged or demoralized. “Work at your own pace and have fun,” she says.
7. Be patient.
If your first class wasn’t love at first lunge, relax, says Putnam, who offers newcomers buy-one-get-one-free deals so they can try a class at least twice before deciding whether it’s the right fit. Glick suggests committing to a new class a few times a week for three weeks before ruling it out. “People should almost expect to be uncomfortable and out of sorts those first couple of times,” he says, especially since classes like yoga have their own language. If you’re convinced a class isn’t for you, move on — key word being “move.” “The most important thing isn’t what you’re doing,” Glick says, “but that you’re doing something.”
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