What's the best route to weight loss at the gym?
March 21, 2012 10:00 PM   Subscribe

So, I've joined a gym. Now what do I do?

I joined a gym this morning. NYHRC, to be exact. Have had memberships to other gyms before, but eventually canceled because I didn't go consistently enough to justify the dues. This one has a large branch right near my office, so I figure I can set up a routine in my schedule.

I need to exercise regularly and lose weight. So my question is, how can I make the most of this membership and effectively lose weight (by reducing fat / slimming down) through exercise? Can you recommend a realistic regimen for someone who until now has not exercised regularly or consistently and is a bit of a sedentary couch potato?

If you were like me once, can you please share what worked for you?
posted by zarq to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend you follow Starting Strength designed by Mark Rippetoe, 3 days a week. His book is excellent and a useful resource. You should supplement this with some sort of cardio either after a workout or on off days. I like to do 10 minutes on a bicycle as fast as I can, though I also recommend Tabata intervals. If you follow this and eat well you will most certainly see results. Plus, lifting is fun!
posted by masters2010 at 10:07 PM on March 21, 2012 [9 favorites]

If you want more of a cardio approach (I do like lifting as well), the Couch to 5K program is designed for people in your situation, going from basically sedentary up to being able to run 5K.

I'd encourage you to try lots of things. Try everything you can, in fact. A lot of people go to the gym, get on the treadmill or bike, and find it boring as hell and quit. But they think that's what "going to the gym" means. It doesn't have to. What's far more important at this point is getting yourself in the habit of going. If that means going to a group class, or only doing lifting, or playing a sport or swimming in lieu of classic things like the exercise bike, that's fantastic. And honestly, if you play racquetball 3 times a week and don't up your caloric intake, you will lose some weight.

Build the habit of going, start doing something, then work on perfection.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:18 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to loose weight what you do in the gym isn't all that important. More calories out than calories in will make you loose weight. This is a nice, basic article from my favorite fitness blog Evidence Based Fitness.

You will want to use some nutrition tracking software like FitDay or DailyBurn to find out how many calories you need and how many you are eating.

But, since you asked about the gym and what to do, I think Master2010 has an excellent suggestion. The Starting Strength program is evidence based, effective and rewarding. You will start small but you will have excellent gains if you stick to it. Though, after lifting I don't have already burned the energy needed to perform HIIT. Doing it on the off days is better, in my opinion.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:42 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

keep it simple, start slow, find exercises that you genuinely like to do, then do then exactly as much and as hard as you want. most exercise programs start off with the assumption that you don't really want to do what the exercise program offers and will therefore need to force yourself or be forced. this is completely wrong. find something that really appeals to you and do it a little bit at a time, until you know intuitively that it's time to move up levels. the vast majority of exercise plans go out the window because of unrealistic and negative goal-setting. if you're behind when you start, and if you can pretty much only get further behind as you go along, you're gonna quit. it makes *absolutely no difference* for a beginner what exercise you do, or how much - it makes all the difference that you find one of more exercises/classes/weightlifting routines, whatever, that you genuinely like.
posted by facetious at 10:43 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to lose weight, change your diet.

You should go to the gym too! Exercise has all sorts of proven benefits. It can help improve your mood if you're depressed, it can strengthen bone density, there's a correlation with reduced cancer rates, it helps with your body image, etc, etc, etc.

But by itself, I don't think it's good way to lose weight. It's part of a weight loss program, but diet seems to be the key.

As for the gym routine, I think starting with a good personal trainer helps. Just to make you comfortable with the equipment, get you started with a basic routine, and when you're meeting someone there it motivates you to go. Some people on here are going to tell you a PT is a waste of money, but I think 3 to 6 months of 2 times/week sessions are worth it (total, you should be going more than 2 times/week though).

- Push yourself. If you start getting bored with your routine, change it up. But remember that you aren't going to the gym to be entertained, sometimes it is just boring and there's nothing you can do about it, you're going to work out. I tend to let my mind wander and think about things I did/am going to do.

- Something I hear some friends do, is they're SORE when they begin and think they should take 3 or 4 days off to recuperate. Bahh... go anyway and exercise some part that isn't sore. I doubt you'll be sore all over. Even if you go and do calf raises and grip strength the entire time the trip would be worth it.

Other than that, one of the best advices I've seen is go to the gym, especially when you don't feel like it. There are some days I just couldn't give a shit about working out, and those are the hardest days to push myself through a routine. But I do it more often than not.
posted by sbutler at 10:49 PM on March 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

"How do I lose weight" has become such an intensely monetized question that it's difficult to get a good answer.

Here are my general guidelines for weightloss:

1) Remove as much sugar as you comfortably can from your diet. This is where the "low carb" diets originated, as carbohydrates are very high in sugar - chew on a piece of bread for a few seconds and you'll notice that it begins to taste sweet.

2) Ideally you'll want to get in a good solid cardio workout 60-90 minutes after you've woken up and had breakfast. It's my understanding that this should increase your metabolism throughout the day.

3) Increasing muscle mass can work to increase your daily caloric expenditures (muscle takes more energy than fat does to keep it alive), but cardio should really be your main focus for weight loss.

4) Personally I think the classic body-weight exercises are actually really excellent for almost everyone. Pushups, dips, pullups, situps/flutter kicks, etc.

5) If your gym has a pool, swimming laps with good form is a KILLER workout for your entire body, cardio and strength, and isn't as soul-crushingly boring as using cardio machines.

6) If not, my personal preference is for the elliptical: low impact, but more demanding than an exercise bike. Do not read or watch TV while doing cardio. Yes it's boring, but concentrating on other things will tend to make you slow down. Try to push yourself. Listen to music.

Honestly, what worked for me was "get deployed to Afghanistan for a year and get sent to small FOBs in the mountains where the SF guys share their gyms with you. Then be a communications soldier that doesn't leave the wire very often. Work out twice a day because what else are you going to do." I've put on more weight than I care to think about since returning to civilian life. =p Good luck!
posted by kavasa at 10:53 PM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

how can I make the most of this membership and effectively lose weight (by reducing fat / slimming down) through exercise?

Exercise is totally brilliant, it makes you feel good, and it's very important for general health. Buuuutttttt, and I hate to say it cause I love exercise, it's not super effective for losing weight. You have to do _a lot_ of exercise. Like, a lot. To burn off the calories of a whopper with cheese, I myself need to run for over ten kilometres. I'm not suggesting you have Whoppers with cheese every day, I'm just highlighting that unless you're doing something like running ten km many days of the week, it's challenging to make speedy weight-loss compared to dietary changes.

Ahem, with that caveat out of the way - and I'm sure everyone will be chiming in here with efficiency tips, my recommendation to people just starting at the gym is very straightforward: Do what makes you go. For all the muscle-building, cardio-strengthening approaches to maximise gains, if you frigging hate it, there's not much point. The best exercise is the one that you will do regularly.

For some people, it's classes, for others it's a treadmill, for others it will be free weights and for yet more it will be weight machines. I like running and free weights myself, but if you're concerned about muscle or efficiency, when you're at the gym I promise you will see many, many muscly dudes using machines (they do work), and many very fit people on elliptical trainers or whatever (they also work for cardio fitness). Do what you enjoy, and don't be afraid to experiment around with a few different approaches to see what that is. Any exercise is better than no exercise. :)
posted by smoke at 11:13 PM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree about diet (and drinking lots of water) - both are very important for losing weight.

I used to be fairly lazy and I had a similar "have a membership but never go" pattern. Something that really helped decrease my intimidation factor at the gym was actually the Nike Training Club app. If you have an iPod or iPhone, you should grab it (it's free!) It's pretty much just a whole bunch of body-weight exercise circuits, but with clear instructions and videos so you don't have to feel totally lost when they say "mountain climbers" or "russian twists". Just choose an amount of time (e.g. 30 minutes) and it'll tell you exactly what you need to do for 30 minutes. You can do it at home a few times or try it out there, and you'll be knowing all sorts of body-weight techniques soon enough! It certainly got me off my ass and now I'm taking tennis lessons because I finally have the stamina.

Other than that, I would have to agree with others who have said just to try some stuff out. If there's a pool, definitely try swimming. Or if there is a summer sports league you want to join, maybe that can be motivation for you to do some related cardio! See if there are some classes - I have heard from friends that spinning classes are really fun and motivating. I think a big thing is
just to switch up what you do - so try cycling one day, running the next, swimming the third day, and repeat. Having a varied plan like that tends to get me more interested in exercising but, of course, YMMV.

In any case, just get over the initial barrier (the first few weeks) and you'll be feeling increasingly motivated to go because you'll be feeling increasingly more capable. You can do it! Good luck!
posted by thebots at 11:31 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there is a lot of good advice here, but here is something that helped me. Buy a scale and use it. Weigh yourself every few days. I started eating well and working out at the start of this year, and it takes a while before your really start noticing the difference just by looking in them mirror. I stayed motivated, though, by seeing the numbers moving on the scale. Even if I didn't see a difference in the mirror, I could look at the scale and see that my hard work was paying off (even if just by a little bit!).
posted by Nightman at 11:46 PM on March 21, 2012

If showing up at the gym is your problem then I think using a personal trainer to get started sounds like a good investment. That way you have accountability and guidance. Yes, it can be expensive but a gym membership you don't use is expensive too.

There's a new book out about forming habits ( I heard about it on NPR but can't remember the title) which might have done good tips on how to make your new working out habit stick!
posted by blue_bicycle at 3:59 AM on March 22, 2012

It's all about creating routines. Or, better-stated, incorporating the gym into your existing routines. Take clothes to the gym and get ready for work there. 30 minute workout during lunchtime. Coffee drinker? No coffee until after working out! Drinks after work? No booze until after working out! Scoobie snacks? No more scoobie snacks--protein shakes after working out!
posted by GPF at 4:16 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

What worked for me was changing my diet, cutting out most carbs (I used to eat way too much pasta and bread) eating more protein, fruit and veggies, and reading labels pn everything before buying. I also signed up with a personal trainer 3 times a week, and do a half hour of walking either on treadmill or outside every day.

Having the trainer appointments motivates me to show up and not make excuses to myself, the general diet I got from my trainer gives me a framework of healthy eating that I can modify to suit my life, but still stay on target to lose weight. The trainers at my gym have a background in physical therapy and tailor every program to the client, so it is not so hard you get discouraged or injured, nor so easy there are no results.

Most gyms have trainers who can show you the equipment and give you some ideas about an exercise program, so even if you do not want to go that route and hire one, a one-time free session can help you get started on your own program. It is well worth it.

In three months I have lost 24 lbs, my blood sugar has returned to normal, and I feel much better, as well as gaining some strength from weight training. I am an older woman who did not exercise for years, so if I can do it anyone can. I have more weight to lose so am sticking with my program, and realize that diet change is permanent. Since I have cut back on carbs I am much less hungry, so I eat less but do not feel deprived.
posted by mermayd at 4:38 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are there activities at the gym you'd like to do, as opposed to "should" do?

I hate running on a treadmill, so I almost never do cardio at the gym. However, I really like to feel like I'm strong, and I like to look at hot guys sweating, so I do free weights when I go to the gym. I also have a weird fascination with abdominal machines (though I know that they don't do much), so I always hit every single one of those.

I finally gave in and joined a gym with a pool, and that helps a lot in New England, where "pool season" lasts about a month. I don't do an impressive number of laps, but swimming gets me there, and then I can go back to grunting with the heavy things and the cute men.
posted by xingcat at 4:54 AM on March 22, 2012

I did this last year and have been successfully going to the gym four mornings a week for months now. My motivation came from a health scare with my mom---looking at her, thinking--she is 19 years older than me and moves like an old woman---do I want my fifties to be like that? She has always been just a little overweight, like I was with a diet based on whim not design. So I decided either I give it up and accept that I'll be a couch potato forever or I change my life now.

So take a hard look at your schedule--- for me, I have two children, a busy job, etc. So I leave my house at 445 in the morning to hit the gym, cause that's when I have the time. But I feel good about myself because while everyone else is snoozing, I've already put in four miles on the treadmill, and I take that energy with me all day. (I also fall asleep in my home office at 10, drooling on the desk, but whatever---so worth it!) So my first piece of advice is to pick a time of day where the gym will be a habit that is sacred. No blowing it off for happy hour, no blowing it off to sleep---you know yourself best, when will you best be able to make yourself do it-lunch hour, maybe? Maybe find a friend to keep you accountable---three of my four workouts weekly are with a buddy and we relentlessly rag on each other for skipping. Seriously, I think we've both only skipped---maybe twice in the last six months. It works.

Regarding the actual workout---what do you like to do? I realize that not all workouts are equal and you should work out your whole body, mixing cardio and weights, etc. But coming from a couch lifestyle, your best bet is to start with what you like--worry about getting the most out of your workout once you build the habit into your life. I started with a trainer who loved putting me on the bike. But those were the worst 25 minutes of my week. I HATED IT. Made me not want to go. So I finally said---look, I'm going to quit if you make me do crap I don't like and designed a workout for myself based on running and abs, which I do like. My arms are still flabby but you know---I run miles at a clip without getting tired--I will take an imperfect workout four times a week over doing something I hate that makes me want to skip it.

Last---diet. Think about what you eat. I was a pretty healthy eater--but I consumed MASSIVE quantities. And it doesn't matter how fresh my chicken is---if I eat three pounds of it, that's too much. So I started being pickier. I eat only things I love. If I take two bites and think something tastes meh, I stop. If I take five bites and think---oh that was good, I feel better now, I stop. I don't need to be full, I only need to be satisfied. I pack my lunch every day with leftovers which is built in portion control because I pack those individual servings right after dinner, when I'm full and can accurately pinpoint how much food I will need. I've saved more than my gym dues just in not eating lunch out anymore. I pack lunch, yogurt for breakfast, a banana or apple, and an orange. That's a whole days worth of food for me at work. No temptation at the vending machine. And having been to the gym already that day makes it easier to say no to junk food---why run all that way to blow it on doritos that are not only bad for me, but covered in weird orange dust---gross. So think about everything you eat---is it worth it? How good does it taste? Because if the answer isn't really good---why are you eating it?

You have to find what works for you. Make it a part of your life. The first month was torture. Getting out of bed sucked. The second month was a little more like---well, guess I should go... by the third month, a missed workout due to a freak snowstorm pissed me off and left me antsy and irritable all day because I missed my run. I look forward to gym days now. I love going and I love feeling strong and powerful and putting myself first---for at least those few hours a week.
posted by supercapitalist at 5:35 AM on March 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

I used to be more than a hundred pounds overweight, and then I joined the gym. Everyone's right, Just working out won't make you lose weight. But it'll make you stronger, happier, and fitter, and those things all Helped me lose weight.

I've done tons of different things in my years of gym-going now, from tons of cardio with some strength and yoga, to my current love, which is the fitness classes. If your gym has classes, try them out - you will work out harder, you will have company, you will have an instructor that should help you do things the right way.

Why do I love classes? Because when they're done right you get cardio and strength all in an hour, you have social reinforcement to go (people will start to ask how you are if you skip), and you have a professional up there telling you what to do.

I'm currently doing a weight loss program through my Y that has been very successful - except it doesn't focus on weight, it focuses on bodyfat percentage. The more muscle you build, the lower your bodyfat percentage. Muscle will boost your metabolism along with making you stronger. It includes a nutrition component that helps a lot, so use a nutritionist if you have questions about how to best fuel your workouts and weight loss. You can do this fitness thing, and love it - really!
posted by ldthomps at 6:42 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are like me, all of the various books and blogs and the idea of a personal trainer are way intimidating. For a long time, I didn't do anything because I thought I needed to do fancy stuff with weights and was afraid I would do it wrong. I just wanted to go to the gym and sweat. The treadmill is not the most exciting machine but it can work. Here's what helped me:

(1) Starting out was really hard, and I couldn't run more than a quarter mile without having to slow down to a walk. So, in the first several weeks, I slowed down when I felt like I needed to. But what kept me motivated and coming back is that I tried to improve a little bit every time. So if on day 1 I did a quarter mile run, half mile walk interval, then on day 3 I wanted to be at a quarter mile run, quarter mile walk interval and in the next week I wanted to be on a half mile run, quarter mile walk interval. Eventually, you'll run a mile. Then you'll run 1.5, then 2. Then you'll get to 5K and when you do it feels great.

(2) Once you get to 5K, keep yourself motivated by challenging your best time and mixing things up. Don't just run at one speed. Go one click faster every 6 minutes. Then every 5, then every 4. Or introduce some different routines. Mix in some days of running as fast as you possibly can for a minute and then walking for a minute, up to 25 minutes. Those days are really hard but fun. Spend some days varying your incline and speed. For me, my speed + incline was equal to 7. So if you are going 6.5 mph, your incline is .5. If you are only going 3 mph, your incline is 4. I found that when my workout wasn't "press start and then do the same thing for 30 minutes," that was really helpful. It breaks the workout up into several different pieces, so you can always see the end of the segment coming not too far away and can get yourself there.

(3) Make some great playlists. Good music really really helps. And if you find you are constantly skipping a song, take it out of rotation.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:53 AM on March 22, 2012

As for the gym routine, I think starting with a good personal trainer helps. Just to make you comfortable with the equipment, get you started with a basic routine, and when you're meeting someone there it motivates you to go. Some people on here are going to tell you a PT is a waste of money, but I think 3 to 6 months of 2 times/week sessions are worth it (total, you should be going more than 2 times/week though).

This. Others have mentioned trainers as well. I just started with a trainer about a month ago after years of unproductive (or unused) gym memberships. My trainer works me harder than I would myself and also, importantly, makes me feel accountable. I'm beginning to see some results in my overall level of fitness.
posted by bluejayway at 9:35 AM on March 22, 2012

I am also starting on this path now. What helps me is playing a sport [esp those that don't need an entire team to play]. There is a Badminton club near my place and I found it to be the perfect sport for me. Its not as intensive as Tennis, the pace can be slower, you don't need too much arm strength plus you will have to stretch, jump, bend, run and scramble, giving you the HIIT (High intensity interval training) that contributes most to weight loss.

Most importantly, its fun to play doubles and getting partners is very easy - people just rotate and there is no judgement on your ability.

Alternating such a sport of your liking with weight training would be a great choice.
posted by theobserver at 9:40 AM on March 22, 2012

Everybody wants different things. I am terrible at exercising with my brain turned off - it feel like hours, but it's only been 5 minutes - but I love the feeling of "doing something". So for me, the point of a gym is that they teach classes. I can then do a quick round of strength (after spinning) or cardio (after yoga) or nothing (if I don't feel like it) but having hte class keeps me engaged and enjoying hte workouts, and having hte teacher schedule keeps me from flaking out. Because the ultimatum is, if I fart around until I'm late to class I don't get to say "oops, maybe tomorrow", I have to go anyway and run the elliptical until class ends. Torture!!

But that's not you. Know yourself, accept your preferences, and make choices that are going to work for you.
posted by aimedwander at 9:41 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here are some things that worked for me:

- a trainer. It creates accountability, keeps you focused, you get a much more effective workout. Once your trainer gets to know you, s/he can suggest classes and other activities that suit your personality/interests etc. For example, my trainer nudged me into taking a circuit class that I fell in love with, and developed a real team camaraderie with the other class participants- so helpful!

- a workout buddy is great. Trainers serve this function, but that can get expensive. Just having a buddy to notice whether or not you showed up can work wonders for developing the habit. (Alternatively, of course, is Health Month.)

- start slowly. Seriously, don't overdo it at first. It can be really tempting to try to gain ground fast, but you risk injury or burnout. Don't think of it as anything other than a regular part of your day, like flossing your teeth.

-when you are feeling low/inclined to bail out, just go and do one thing, or do something gentle. Stay in the routine of going to the gym even when you don't feel like it. It is so much, much easier to maintain a pattern of exercise than to get back into it after dropping out.

-do not take any reading material with you. Don't. You are there to exercise, not to catch up on your reading- to use your workout time effectively, no reading. Music or audiobooks are fine, I think, but the mental attention taken by reading is stealing from your workout. And do not even ask me about the special loathing I have for people who try to read the newspaper in the weight room. No, no, no.
posted by ambrosia at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2012

Group exercise classes! It's so much easier not thinking about what you have to do, and just following what someone says. Also a lot easier to make yourself get to the gym if you know the class starts at say, 5:30, as opposed to thinking "well I can finish my snack, but then I'll have to wait to digest it, so I'll just go in an hour, maybe an hour and a half."

I kinda disagree about not bringing reading / watching material. There are days when I DO NOT feel like working out. So I tell myself, "no pressure, just get to the gym and do what you can on the bike, or walk uphill on the treadmill while watching netflix on your phone or reading your book." Even though it won't be a hard workout at all, it'll get my legs moving for at least a half hour, so it's better than nothing, and then since I'm at the gym already, I might even get the motivation to do other things after my lazy bike ride (as long as no one is waiting for the cardio machines!). This will also help you in keeping your routine, instead of getting used to skipping days.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 11:39 AM on March 22, 2012

At risk of repeating the good advice above:

1. Definitely pay attention to your diet, eg by progressively reducing or eliminating "bad" foods, but remember to treat yourself to occasional indulgences. I won't say any more about diet, because it's kinda obvious.

2. From couch potato status, I'd recommend starting out building up your cardio fitness first, as it will give you a good base to jump into other activities. Elliptical machines & rowing machines burn the most calories & work out the most muscle groups. Treadmills & exercise bikes, not so much. Start out light & increase your time as well as regularly bumping up the resistance. Before you know it, you should be able to do more than half an hour on the highest settings, truly. Just make sure you get an attendant to show you how to use the rowing machines - so many people have such terrible technique, just because they've never thought to ask how to use the things.

3. Solo machines get boring, so once your fitness has improved, you can do group classes without feeling like you're going to die. Group classes are great for motivation, and you'll be introduced to all kinds of new exercises to work different muscles. The same class is never exactly the same week to week, by the way. I like tabata, cardio circuits & weights-based classes. Whenever there are weights involved, aim to increase the weight on your dumbells or barbells every week or two. It'll feel good to notice that progress.

4. Having built up some strength that way, I've now switched to a Starting Strength kind of program, because I promised some guys in some Metafilter thread that I'd give it a go. Lifting weights might or might not be your kettle of tea, but my body fat has gone down further since starting, and I already feel stronger & more muscular. I didn't expect the body fat to decrease once I stopped the cardio classes, but hey, how about that? Must just be that "muscles use more calories at rest than fat" principle kicking in.

5. Routine. Make the gym part of yours. I find that after work is when motivation is the lowest & I'm most likely to skip workouts, so morning workouts are my best, followed by lunchtimes. It also feels good to get that exercise kick & then ride it out for the rest of the day.

6. I absolutely agree that you should do what you enjoy. Try different things until you work out what you like. Don't pay too much attention to what anybody else is doing. So what if somebody cycles harder than you or lifts 10x as much? Who cares, they started in exactly the same position as you. Your own progress is all that matters.

Disclaimer: never really a couch potato, but I put on a lot of weight when on 3 months leave last year, and while doing the above I dropped 10kg/22lb, which was about 13% of my weight.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:18 PM on March 22, 2012

Like everyone is saying, the best workout is the one you'll do. I have had great success with a once a week (!) high intensity weight lifting model coupled with a conscious effort to fill my life with non-exercise movemt. My home computer is on a standing height desk. I park in the first available slot and never use elevators. I only watch tv while doing chores. That kind of thing. Again though, most of my fat loss has probably happened because of eating low carb/real food and prioritizing sleep. Seriously, it's amazing the difference sleep makes.
posted by hishtafel at 6:03 AM on March 23, 2012

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