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THIS TIME, YOU’RE GOING TO DO IT, RIGHT? JOIN A GYM, GET BACK IN SHAPE — BECOME A WHOLE NEW YOU.

Except that’s what millions of people say. The reality check: millions of people fall short in achieving such a goal. Yet there are those who succeed at finding a better body through exercise. Often, their success is due to a key motivator, such as getting over a failed relationship or facing down a class reunion, a health problem or unwanted hair loss. What separates those who find fitness through exercise from those who fail?

Joining a gym seems like a simple solution. But the reason most people join a health club is to address complex and challenging problems that are fraught with myriad psychological difficulties. Add to that the fairly common lack of knowledge or even misinformation on how to exercise, and we see a reason why the gym dropout rate is so high.

“In January many decide to join a gym,” says Marc Lebert, a Mississauga, Ontario, trainer, club owner and neurolinguistic practitioner. “But research shows that more than half the people who join will not make it to swimsuit season. Why? Because their main goal was to join a gym, and once they signed that membership, they met their goal!”

We quizzed Lebert and his colleagues, twenty gym owners and fitness trainers in North America, to see how they get their clients past that initial intimidation and uncertainty in gym membership. They shared dozens of ideas, most of which break down into three categories:

Choose a gym that fits you

Fitness facilities now come in a broad variety, particularly in larger cities, such that there’s an option for almost everyone. The gyms marketed to 20-something hard bodies are no longer the only choice: hospital-based clubs, nonprofit gyms and those that focus on functional training over the body beautiful are more numerous today than ever before.

“Find a gym that’s right for you,” says Nicole Placios, a certified fitness trainer and freelance writer in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “If you’re female, maybe a women’s-only club is what you need to feel comfortable. Go at a time of day when your peers are most likely to be training.”

Pay attention to which gyms offer free or fee-based training classes, either in large- or small-group settings. For many, classes are very effective and some gyms specialize in them.
If you are particularly “deconditioned,” the industry term for individuals who haven’t exercised in a very long time, you may have trouble finding a club where you feel comfortable (of course, that is all up to the individual’s sense of self). Two bits of advice came from several of our trainer-advisers:

If you’re extremely overweight, contact a nutritionist or dietician first to make dietary changes, says Robbie Bachar, a certified lifestyle and weight management consultant in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “Getting weight off should be the priority to save wear and tear on bones and joints.” She also suggests that some people may be more comfortable exercising in their own homes with the help of a mobile fitness trainer.

“Although some fitness equipment looks rather complex, it is typically designed to work on basic concepts like push-pull, lift-lower, etcetera…”

Several trainers discourage gym newbies from comparing themselves with obviously fit, exercise-experienced people in a health club. “If it helps, remember that these people will be spending more time looking at themselves (not you) while they are at the gym,” notes Danielle Kapral, a certified personal and group trainer in Harbor Springs, Mich.

Take advantage of orientations and free training sessions

If this is your first time back in a health club in five or more years, you might see the usual amalgamation of heavy metal objects plus a number of other new items: inflated large and small balls, elastic bands, vibrating plates, balancing boards, even traffic cones. You could study up through online videos or simply grab a chair and watch other members put these to work. But any gym worth its membership fees today will offer one or more orientation sessions for new members on how each of these items work.

“Although some fitness equipment looks rather complex, it is typically designed to work on basic concepts like push-pull, lift-lower, etcetera,” says Kapral. “Once one understands how to adjust the resistance level, height, and so forth, much of this knowledge is easily transferred across different types of equipment.”

If your gym doesn’t offer a few free training or orientation sessions, is it worth the investment in a trainer? “Your goal is to learn what to do and how exercise should feel,” says Christine Binnendyk, a trainer at Nike world headquarters. “If you need to save money, less pricey, 30-minute sessions are long enough for paid trainer sessions — warm up on your own, stretch at the end on your own.”

Recognize the social component of your gym membership

This was actually cited by more trainers than anything else. They encourage all fitness newcomers to buddy up with a friend or give a conscious effort to making friends at their health club. I questioned this approach, as I have always worked out in solitude and can’t understand why people would want to be dependent on two people’s schedules.

But the director of personal training at the gym where I work set me straight on this. Cheston Bogue, at Chicago’s West Loop Gym, explains that this club is much like many others in the industry, where membership packages include semiprivate and group training sessions. The workouts are rigorous, designed to raise the heart rate by working a variety of muscle groups.

But the benefits also include sociability, where participants meet and often see the same people return two, three or four times per week. He says it’s often what keeps people coming back.

Can joining a small group cause its own stress? Manage the intimidation, suggests Lebert. “Show up early and meet and chat with the instructor. Let them know you are a beginner and to take it easy on you! Most good instructors will know how to modify exercises and monitor your intensity during the class.”

In other words, be honest and direct with yourself and the people at your health club. From that starting point, you can only get better.