Although I played lots of sport when growing up, the first time I ventured into a gym was when I was 18 and left home to go to college in Melbourne, Australia. The membership was included in my college fees, and it was all fairly basic. I found it pretty intimidating though — a free-weights room full of big guys grunting as they determinedly pumped iron. I rarely had enough courage to venture in there, and limited my exercise to swimming in the pool (where I met my first boyfriend — good times).

Key learnings:

  • Unless you feel comfortable at your gym you’re unlikely to go very often.
  • Always be open to conversations with fellow-gym goers — you never know where it might take you.

After college I moved to Echuca, in rural Australia, where I worked for a number of years. A new gym with a big 50m pool had recently been built, and I enthusiastically signed up. It was here that I first tried classes. Although I soon gave up on step-aerobics, due to a severe lack of coordination, I quite enjoyed the Body Pump class and a circuit class. I also spent quite a bit of time in the weights area, but without any real clue as to what I was doing — I’d half-heartedly attempt to follow whatever the latest fad that the fitness magazines were promoting, but most of the time I’d try a few machines and then go for a swim.

Key learnings:

  • While classes can be fun, they will rarely make any material change to your body composition.
  • Unless you’re following a structured resistance training program when you workout, you are pretty much wasting your time.

Since then I’ve lived in a variety of cities and tried all sorts of gyms and classes — some more successful than others. It wasn’t until I was in London and looking for a new gym that I realised what I’d been doing wrong.

The gym that I’d decided to join — because they were offering a special discount on the membership and it was close to home — was offering a three-session taster package with a personal trainer. I signed up, with low-expectations, and soon realised where I’d been going wrong.

Having someone to train with was a huge motivation to turn up and take it seriously. Setting goals, following a structured program, and recording what had been achieved with each session not only completely changed the way I thought about my workouts, but also delivered real results in increased strength and a leaner body composition.

Key learnings:

  • Setting goals and tracking your progress will keep you focused.
  • Training with a work-out buddy is a fantastic motivator.
  • A good personal trainer can change your life.

How to choose a gym

Wherever you live, there will be a lot of different gyms all competing for your time and money. To help test some of my theories, I spoke with Fitness First’s central fitness support manager David Perrin on some of the key things to look at when searching for a gym.

If you’re looking to join a gym, what are the three key factors you should consider?

From a practical point of view, the three key factors are the location, the cost, and if you feel that there’s value in joining.

You have to ask whether it’s worth travelling to the gym. If so, this will give you a good idea on if you should commit to joining.

From a goal point of view, the general level of support the gym provides should be a key factor. A majority of people are not strong-minded or motivated enough to train on their own or exercise at home, therefore if you need support — either one-on-one or in small groups surrounded by like-minded people — you should certainly consider this when selecting a gym.

Understanding what you want to get out of joining will also help guide your decision.

Are all gyms pretty much the same?

No — you’ve got your low-cost, basic gyms, to mid and high-end, and all of these offer different things.

Low-cost budget gyms tend to offer the space to workout, and of course the equipment, but in general that’s it, there’s no support here so those who need motivating a touch more may be best off aiming a little higher.

A mid-market facility offers more of a support platform and certainly a friendly atmosphere with more interaction and familiarity.

The high-end gyms include all of this, along with added facilities such as child-care, tennis courts, or swimming pools.

The one you choose doesn’t always depend on cost, and again your goal comes into play here, it’s all about what you aim to achieve and how you want to get to your goal.

How can you tell if a gym is right for you?

It all comes down to how you feel from the interaction you initially receive.

Do you feel part of a club? Do you feel supported? First impressions make a big impact and if you don’t feel comfortable in the environment then you’re much less likely to want to make enough visits to make an impact on your fitness routine.

This means that it’s often less about the facilities of the gym and more about how the gym makes you feel.

Should you test a gym out before joining?

Why not? Try-before-you-buy always makes you feel more comfortable and often allows you to get a better picture of the value you’re being offered.

What’s the best way to maintain your motivation and get the most out of your gym membership?

Variety!

Gyms offer a range of training concepts — from personal trainers, to classes, to small workouts, to one-on-one.

This variety of classes ensures you don’t get bored with doing the same workout, and also benefits the body from working new muscle groups.

Connecting with people, and finding others who want to achieve the same goal is also very useful, as it can add the benefits of sharing tips and even a healthy sense of competition and challenge to your workout.

The golden rules

So, in summary, my five golden rules when choosing a gym are:

  • Location: Ensure that location is not an excuse for you not to go — it’s either got to be close to home, close to work, or super-easy to get to.
  • Features: Be clear on what you need from a gym — as this will help narrow your search. Do you need weights plus classes plus pool? You’re going to be looking at a pretty high-end gym. If you just need some basic free weights and a clean shower, then you’re going to have different options.
  • Trial: Short-list at least three gyms in your target location — do a trial workout at each of them. If none of them feel like a place where you want to hang out, keep searching.
  • Price: This should be a factor, but not the determining factor. If you find a gym that is super-cheap but doesn’t have the features that you need, then you’re still wasting your money.
  • Friends: Try and join a gym where you know people, ideally somewhere where you know that you have friends who workout. Having gym buddies is a huge motivator. If that’s not possible, consider signing up with a personal trainer — the ultimate gym buddy.