Dear Mark: Should I Join a Gym?

Dear Mark,

The last year or so I’ve been trying to get in better shape but have had to start from a pretty low level. With the help of some pretty major weight loss (thanks to the Primal diet) and a steady exercise routine I’m ready to kick it up a notch or two. I’ve thought about joining a gym but wonder if I should put my money toward some home equipment instead. I’ve been pretty basic up to this point. Where would you suggest I start? Is it worth it for a beginner like myself to join a gym? I don’t think there are any CrossFit clubs where I live.

I think everybody asks themselves this question at some point. I’ve always maintained that a PB-style workout is completely attainable without a lot of equipment, let alone an entire gym. Nonetheless, I definitely understand why so many prefer to join health clubs. I go to one myself for a number of reasons. For some, it’s about having an alternative to exercising in inclement weather where they live. For others, it’s about being able to focus better outside the home. For still others, it’s the variety of equipment or social setting that they feel keeps them motivated. In some cases, it’s about the additional perks (sauna, pool, etc.).

Let me say congrats on the progress you describe. The Primal Blueprint, as we say here all the time, is simply about the everyday effort and continuing progression of diet, activity, and lifestyle that will support your health over time. There’s no “bad” place to start (or re-start), no time table, and no upper limit no matter how long you’ve been in the game.

For relative beginners on the fitness scene, I guess I’d give this run-down on the gym question. First, the reasons to forgo the gym (or at least feel like it’s an unnecessary element)… Whether it’s about buying equipment or a club membership, the fitness commitment is all about ongoing personal motivation. An initial financial investment (piece of home equipment or membership) might be incentive to get us started, but it takes a lot more to stay on track long-term. It’s something, I think, we all intuit, but research studies support the point. It’s clear you’ve already sustained that commitment for an impressive stretch, enough for it to become an official habit, as the experts would say (usually a 3-6 month process). Totally revamping your practice all in one swoop might be counterproductive to the pattern you’ve established. For some, making a slower transition in adding workouts/additional settings is a better strategy. In other words, keep doing what you’ve been doing, but set goals for what you’d like to add in the next 1-2 months.

Unless the climate in your area makes it necessary, I usually don’t recommend that people go out and spend a big chunk of money on a cardio machine right away. If you’re able to get in low-level cardio and sprinting outdoors where you live, I’d argue that there’s little need for the big machines that tend to be budget-busters. Make smaller, more versatile investments first: a good mat, a medicine ball, some free weights, slosh tube, sandbag, kettlebells, etc. As for shaking up other parts of your workout, check out my past posts on sprints and plyometrics, as well as full workouts you can do anywhere.

I recently came across this run-down of exercises in the L.A. Times. Definitely worth checking out. While the parkour routines tend to be more advanced as we’ve said in the past, I really like the “trail full-body workout” they offer with ideas like hill skip repeats, uphill lunges, hill sprints and incline push-ups. It’s a great set of practices for anybody interested in a moderately challenging routine or just interested in getting a good outdoor workout. (Personally, I prefer being outdoors.)

As for the pro-gym perspective, I’d say this. For a lot of people, a gym can offer (at least) three important additions to their fitness endeavor: a variety of new ideas, a variety of equipment, and a new means of support and community. As for the new ideas, a lot of readers have commented on the fitness classes they take. Whether it’s the set time and group, the instructor motivation or the education opportunity for a totally new option (e.g. Tai Chi), a class has been integral to their overall routine. In terms of new equipment, a gym perhaps offers the best “try before you buy” possibility. You have the chance to get a sense of not only what equipment you enjoy using the most but what weights/sizes work the best for you. Finally, a gym can offer not just personal trainer expertise for learning new equipment basics and form. It often offers people a real community and sense of social support for their health goals. I’ve made some close friends at the gym, and some of the folks there continue to be incredible sources for tips and new ideas (not to mention inspiration). My experience has been that people really love doing what they can to help other people out – showing them the ropes, offering encouragement, etc.

The question about gym/home gym is timely not only because we have so many new readers onboard for the PB challenge, but because it’s actually a question that’s been in the news lately. With so many people looking to tighten their financial belts, what health related industries are taking a hit? How are gyms, for example, faring? It seems like a mixed bag. (I’m curious about what others are thinking. Has the economic downturn made a difference in your decision to join or renew? Doing some more comparison shopping for a club?) We’ll actually offer more on the health and “recession” theme this week. Stay tuned…

In the meantime, I’d ask everyone here what helped them ratchet up their workouts. What equipment, what class, what kind of workout environment/community/partnership made the difference for you?

Thanks as always for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

I Like Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Shake Your Gym Addiction. The Outside World is Waiting for You.

Tips for Sprint Training

LA Times – Gyms Are Slashing Prices

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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