How Does Exercising Work?
July 29, 2009 5:37 PM   Subscribe

The kids wanted to take skateboarding lessons and swimming lessons and use the climbing wall at the YMCA, so we got a family what can *I* do with it?

I have, literally, never intentionally exercised. Last time I really did any "exercise" was 1990, sophomore year of high school, the last gym class I was required to take to graduate. I worked in carpentry a while, did odd-jobs that were physical (delivery, furniture assembling, etc.), so I was pretty fit into my twenties. Now, I'm 35, 5'10", 190lbs, and sit all day long in front of a computer, and recently had a high cholesterol test for which exercise and diet changes was advised. I've put on weight slowly, a couple pounds a year since I've gotten more sedentary, and I can tell I'm becoming un-fit. Yes, I've searched AskMetafilter for previous exercise advice, but it is all mumbo-jumbo to me.

This is the nearest YMCA, although I can go to either of the local ones; they say they have someone who can help using the equipment appropriately ("free orientations"), but they're not a personal trainer. I'm not trying to lose a lot of weight or build muscle: I'm just aiming for general healthiness, and since the YMCA is available to me, I'd like to use it. I don't expect anyone to hand me an exercise plan or go into great detail, but just put me at a starting point in the maze and a general idea of which way to go. I guess what I'm looking for is terminology, expectations, or direction -- how does intentional fitness happen?
posted by AzraelBrown to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You mention swim lessons for the kids. Check and see if they have "free swim" times or if you can reserve a lane. It's quite the workout and I've always felt really relaxed after. You get some cardio benefit from it as well as flexing and stretching out a lot of muscles. If you do some weightlifting once or twice a week, you could probably trim off a few pounds a month without really feeling like you're exercising.
posted by emjay at 5:42 PM on July 29, 2009

Your Y has "Group Fitness and Water Exercise Classes included with membership".

See if they have water aerobics classes. I go three times a week for these at my Y. They last an hour each, and I can thoroughly recommend them.
posted by lungtaworld at 6:00 PM on July 29, 2009

I'd recommend clarifying to yourself what you want to get out of it. At the same time, I understand that you may be in the dilemma of having no idea what to shoot for.

There are a lot of different reasons people exercise, or rewards they get. I think they generally have two categories:
-Measurables: body weight, fat %age, amount of weight lifted, number of swimming laps one can do, etc.
-Immeasurables: physical feeling after working out, mental feeling of accomplishment, social opportunities, etc.

What goal one has in mind to a large degree dictates what activities one is likely to choose. I'd recommend trying everything. Since you have no idea what you will enjoy, go try all of it. Grab a class schedule and do some group classes. At the same time, try weights and cardio on your own. Initially all you'll have to go on is how something feels. That's fine! I'd say anything that doesn't make you feel good isn't worth pursuing. The things that you like, try them for longer. A couple months even. As you continue, you'll start to notice ways that you're improving, feeling better, and changing. If you find yourself sticking with something, try seeking expert advice. You may discover new ways and new rewards.

One more thing I want to say. "How does intentional fitness happen?" One little decision at a time. I started running because I wanted to feel good. After a month I started tracking specific times and distances. Then I branched out into yoga. Am I fit? No idea. Fitness to me isn't something I am; it's just something I do. That you're doing anything is amazing, and with some discipline, experimentation, and the right attitude, you can find physical activity that will reward you in a myriad of ways.
posted by dualityofmind at 6:08 PM on July 29, 2009

What changed my life, thanks to the YMCA: yoga.

I htink this is different for everyone, but the Y near me had "low income" memberships when I was low income. You can take any of their classes for free. I was just out of a long relationship and in sort of a bad mood and sort of stuck there. I was also not in great shape and didn't really know how to relax or exercise very well. The Y had a yoga class that was around lunchtime [none of those crazy morning yoga classes work for me]. The teacher was this super nice woman with not a lot of new-agey talk and a "you're all winners" approach. My class was a lot of senior citizens and a few random folks including this really huge woman who was incredibly nice. The teacher encouraged us to do the poses to the best of our ability.

Even though I felt a little like I was in the special ed yoga class, I gradually got more flexible and got rid of some of my persistent (and probably stress related) neck and back pain. Add to this that it gave me a bit of a routine, they had a great steamroom/sauna that was like a treat at the end of it, and the whole thing just worked, and it really turned my shit around. I eventually started going to the Y for swimming and a little gym machine time and I still swim regularly now, fifteen years later, and am even a lifeguard at my local pool on occasion. My favorite thing about the Y was that it was NOT a gym, just a place to do health oriented activities with people who looked a lot like the general public. It looks like your Y has an "adut noon circuit" which you could try for a little bit and just see what you like and what you don't like (I didn't see any yoga) and then come armed with that information when you go see a personal trainer. Think about what you'd like to get out of some gym time and then see what things you like once you're there and then figure out how to make those things combine. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 6:23 PM on July 29, 2009

Very little will change your life or how you feel compared to lifting weights hard. For the first 2 weeks you will be so sore you can't believe it, then you start to notice the weight notches moving up. Then up some more. You're still sore, but you don't care, you just want to move up one more plate.

Just try it out for a month or so. I can guarantee you'll look at your body and life in a whole new way.
posted by sanka at 6:45 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I' try something like yoga too. You can throw in some basic weight exercises too. Way back when I started working out I found the Body For Life book helpful for establishing a workout routine. Don't pshaw using the climbing wall. I love climbing and it is a great workout both mentally and physically.

Classes of any sort are definitely worth trying. They help establish a routine and can be fun. Expect to be like a fish out of water the first few classes and remember that everyone was a new student at sone point so they won't think poorly of you.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:54 PM on July 29, 2009

If you decide to start lifting, Starting Strength comes highly recommended.
posted by box at 6:59 PM on July 29, 2009

I looked at that link to your YMCA. You might start with the "New To Fitness" program.

Also, it says they offer personal training, for an extra fee. But you might think about trying it a little, at least for a couple of sessions if you can. When I started at a gym about 10 years ago, I had no idea what to do. I had a friend recommend a trainer, and I told her up front that I couldn't afford to pay for ongoing sessions, but I needed some teaching as to what to do. Maybe I got lucky, but she was just great. In about two hour-long sessions she taught me a good basic list of exercises, wrote them all down for me, told me how to arrange them over 3 days a week. From there, I was on my own, but following her instructions, in just a couple months I felt so much better and was really doing well with it.

And one of the reasons I always make this recommendation to try and work with a trainer at least to begin with, is that there are a LOT of fine points about certain weight lifting exercises that you just cannot get from reading them in a book or magazine, and that not only will help you get better results but prevent injury. Things like how to correctly hold your chest and shoulder posture during bench presses. It's stuff you'll only get from a good attentive trainer watching you and correcting you. But once you learn it, you don't need to keep paying a trainer if you can't afford it, just work on self-motivation.
posted by dnash at 7:00 PM on July 29, 2009

Guidelines from the American Heart Association:

Guidelines for healthy adults under age 65, Basic recommendations from ACSM and AHA:

Do moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week
Do vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week
Do eight to 10 strength-training exercises, eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise twice a week.

Moderate-intensity physical activity means working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat, yet still being able to carry on a conversation. It should be noted that to lose weight or maintain weight loss, 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity may be necessary. The 30-minute recommendation is for the average healthy adult to maintain health and reduce the risk for chronic disease.

That said, I would start with 3ish days a week, just trying out the cardio machines moderately for 30 mins to get a feel for what you enjoy, or take a class or two if offered, and have someone show you the basics on weights. And totally try out the climbing wall yourself, it counts as strength training and gives you awesome shoulders.
posted by lemonade at 7:12 PM on July 29, 2009

Here, I can hand you an exercise plan, one that's tailored to you. is a great resource I found from other answers on Ask. You fill out a questionnaire about your fitness goals, what equipment you have available, and it'll generate both strength and cardio regimens for you. Or you can replace exercises with your own program, and track your progress through weight and measurements, and it'll calculate calories burned. It'll also do diet plans for you, or just help you track calories and other nutrients, like fat.

Did I mention this is all free? It's got ads out the wazoo, but its free.

If nothing else, it'll give you a starting point for hitting the gym.
posted by fontophilic at 7:58 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get a schedule and just try different things. The group exercise classes are varied and the best one will be the one that you keep going back to.

Play basketball, racquet ball or something with your kids. Or go crazy and try climbing with them.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 9:31 PM on July 29, 2009

Well, here's a thought, just throwing it out there: - don't try the workout on the front page. Instead, click 'start here' on the menu on the left, and choose 'brandx scaled workouts'.

For each "workout of the day" on the main site, BrandX posts various scaling levels. Believe me, "buttercup," the lowest level, can kick your butt if you go after it for real. I recommend just doing it for completion every day and not worrying about going for speed/score - except record your score anyway, however lame you think it may be. When you start seeing certain workouts again, go for a slight improvement over last time, nothing too crazy. In fact, you should see improvement without even really focusing on score for quite a while.

The workouts are varied from day to day so you won't get bored, not too difficult to do in my YMCA at least, and designed for a good general fitness (as opposed to body building, or something more specialized like that). Just that simple, that's how I got "tricked" into actually enjoying working out and being active after being a non-physical person for more than 20 years. Never thought that could happen.
posted by ctmf at 9:55 PM on July 29, 2009

Try a yoga class-- these are full of women getting back into fitness; I find them much less intimidating than the hard bodies who seem to know their way around the equipment (for a real blow to the self esteem, drop in on a Y in California while on vacation sometime. On second thought, don't. Just go for a run.) Anyway, most Ys have lots of other things to do from drawing classes to birdwatching to mall walker groups, and will certainly have yoga classes. Talk to the teacher first and find out if there's a class with a high concentration of middle schooler moms.
posted by nax at 5:33 AM on July 30, 2009

Have you asked anyone at the Y? Why not take every class, and see which you like?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:28 AM on July 30, 2009

I'd highly recommend trying out a BodyPump class or three. It's a great way to combine strength training and cardio into a single hour, and you don't have to develop a workout plan or even count reps ... just listen to the instructor. You'll learn a lot about different techniques and, in my experience, make new friends in the process. Just don't be too proud to start out with light weights until you get good form down.

And nthing the awesomeness of yoga.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 11:39 AM on July 30, 2009

Duality has the right answer: define exactly what it is that you want to get out of exercising. Set yourself some kind of goal, then work toward it. What exactly do you want to accomplish with your training? Now, you're probably thinking something like: "well, I just want to be healty" or "I want to get into shape". This is good, but it's probably not enough to keep you motivated enough to exercise over the long period of time that will be required to overcome the sedentary inertia you've been working on for the past 10 or 15 years. Your body has been adapting to being sedentary for the a long time. It will take a while to adapt to your new exercise regimen, and it will feel miserable. Having a well-defined goal will help you get over the misery. Perhaps your initial goal will be to attend the gym 3 times weekly. That will work while you're figuring out what it is you want to set as a real goal.

Here's an interesting article by Charles Staley (part 1, part 2). He talks about the difference between being an "exerciser" and an "athlete". You are probably not aiming at becoming an athlete, but he makes some interesting points about the psychological differences between dutiful exercisers and motivated athletes.

Part of the reason all these exercise threads are mumbo jumbo to you is that you have never (presumably) learned much about exercise. You should probably address that problem by picking up some literature about it. Concepts like progressive overload and some basic knowledge of your physiology will help you with pretty much any fitness goal you could create. I wish I could point you to some good books here (besides my perennial favorite Starting Strength), but what you should read depends on what kind of goal you choose for yourself in the long run. The web is full of information about exercise for running, cycling, weightlifting, body weight circuit training, crossfit, etc.

Everybody has their exercise religion. Bodybuilders, powerlifters, crossfitters, long distance runners, middle distance runners, sprinters, yoga practitioners (in all their varied glory), cyclists, etc, all have their own ways of training and sneer at the others. They have name calling contests but the reality is that any exercise is better than being sedentary.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 2:13 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just a follow-up, in case anybody was wondering: Wifey and I talked to the YMCA and got a different, more involved tour of the place (I think we were there almost two hours), explaining that we had no clue but wanted to use the Y as much as possible. When we got to the weightroom/treadmill/bike area, we talked to one of the Y guys there, and he said we could make an appointment with one of the trainers and help build a plan and learn how to use the equipment, for free, part of membership.

So, my appointment was this afternoon, and told the trainer that my doctor said I needed to exercise and I was more interested in strength. He did a good job of setting me up for self-tracking of my progress (they provide worksheets to keep track of weight/reps/time/etc, and keep them on file at the gym) and showed me how to use around a dozen different types of machines for various muscles I never knew I had, including steering me away from a couple machines that seemed to aggravate a problem with my left shoulder that I didn't know was there. So, in all, far less confusing than I thought, and I think I'll be able to stick with it - and it sounded like I could make another appointment like this one if I feel like I need to change the plan or work on something different.

And, yes, every muscle in my body feels like it has been extruded through a Play-Dough Fun Factory*, but it feels good.
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:06 PM on September 16, 2009

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