Mysteries of the Gym, Part I

Mysteries of the Gym, Part I

I finally signed up for a gym membership, having realized that it’s actually cheaper than my daily Starbucks habit, and therefore actually quite a good deal by comparison. At an average of $5 a day, the Starbucks habit costs me about $100/month. The gym membership will be costing me about $500 for the first year, minus a $200 yearly health insurance reimbursement, for a grand total of $300/year. After the first year, the cost will be $20/month, with no lock-in. With the health insurance reimbursement, the cost will be a mere $40/year. This is a no-brainer.

For my first year, I opted to sign up for program consisting of 5-7 individual 1-hour sessions with one of the club trainers. After that, there are 30 minute follow up sessions every so often. Although this costs $99, I figured it was expertise worth paying for since I know absolutely nothing about exercise.


I am such a newbie that I didn’t even know what to wear. The general consensus is not to be too flashy or too slovenly. This article covered the basics, and after some more digging I settled on the following.

  • Plain Cotton Dark T-shirt — I went with basic black microweave wicking (cost: about $7). White t-shirts apparently can stain yellow from deodorant running. Gray t-shirts turn dark from pit sweat…gross! A friend of mine also suggested that I wash the shirt every day so it’s fresh. I bought an extra one just in case I forgot.

  • Plain Cotton shorts — Not too baggy, but not too revealing. Should end just above the knee, to avoid looking like a dork. Mine are gray with a drawstring. About $7 also.

  • Plain White Cotton Socks — Cushioned socks, not going past the ankle. I went with the ankle-length socks from Haynes, 83% Cotton, at $9 for 6 pairs. They seemed to work fine.

  • Training Shoes — Cross trainers apparently have the arch support you need for this kind of exercise. I already had a pair of Nike Air cross trainers, about $40, from before. They’re white with dark blue trim. They weren’t so good for basketball, but they seem to have held up for today’s session.

Some other stuff I forgot to get:

  • Gym Bag — I carried around my stuff in a plastic shopping bag like a yutz. Never again!

  • Gym Lock — I guess they make you bring your own locks for the lockers. Duh.

  • Towel — I brought a bath towel. It’s way too big. I need to get a smaller one.

  • Water Bottle — Not necessary, as it turns out. Just go to the water fountain.


I had to fill out a health history form to determine if I had any pre-existing medical conditions. The only ones I weren’t sure of: blood pressure and cholesterol. The last time I had a full physical they were fine (I was surprised), but it’s been a few years so I should really schedule a doctor’s appointment. The trainer asked me some questions about what I wanted to accomplish with my exercise, and I replied as follows:

  • Learn about Fitness and the Variety of Fitness Activities — I really don’t know that much about physical exercise. The last time I did anything regular was when I was forced to in High School.

  • Improve strength across the board — I don’t want to have giant muscles, but I want to know my body can perform when it needs to.

  • Know what exercises might match with training for what sports — For example, what kind of exercises do rock climbers do? I was just curious.

  • Lose weight — I figure that this would come naturally while doing all the other stuff, so I listed it last.

  • Not be bored — This is the one that I am most concerned about. Is the gym becomes a chore, or doesn’t deliver results that are tangible, then I will lose interest. I don’t want this to happen.

The trainer, John, nodded through all these questions, and told me that the first thing to do was to focus on cardiovascular exercise. Minimum: 30 minutes a day of elevated heart rate. So for today, we focused on a variety of machines in the Cardio room. John indicated that we’d start with the hardest machines, and end with the easiest ones. I think the idea was to get the heart rate elevated quickly. As we walked to the machine area, I asked if I had to stretch. The trainer said it wasn’t necessary with these machines and that it was bad to do when you were “cold”, but stretching AFTERWARDS was critical. This not-stretching thing in the beginning was new to me, and I’m thinking there must be more to the story. I had always equated “warming up” with “stretching”, but maybe this isn’t the case. All the machines had a “quick start” button on them, which allows you to just get the machine moving and measuring your heart rate, calories burned, and so on. They all have programmed modes too to simulate different environments. Here are the machines I used today:

  • Stair Climbing Machine — This was kind of like an endless staircase, like an escalator, with adjustable resistance. I actually like climbing stairs, so this was kind of fun. Although my leg muscles aren’t as strong as they used to be, I used to ride bikes a lot when I was a kid. They were single-speed, short crank bikes, and I lived on a mountain…I had incredibly strong leg muscles, which surprised people because I was kind of a pale geeky-looking kid. It did get the heart rate going quickly, I must say.
At this point, I asked questions about how to monitor one’s body for trouble…when was I over exerting myself? What should I pay attention to? John said that I would learn to listen to my body. Feeling the “burn” in the muscles is good, but it’s not good if it’s in the joints. If I felt dizzy or light headed or short of breath, stop and walk it off by going to the water fountain. Don’t just stop everything…keep moving. I felt a little light headed, so I got off the stair climber and got some water.
  • Stepper Machine — I think that’s what it was caused…I privately thought of it as the “bouncy” machine. You stand in it and lift each leg up in a kind of bouncing motion, like you are a hop-scotching bunny. I actually liked this machine a lot too, but mostly for the silly reasons above.

  • Elliptical — This was the freakiest machine of the bunch, with a foot motion somewhere between bicycling and walking. I thought of it as “peddle-shuffling”. Apparently it is very good for working the butt, which might explain the number of women using it. I didn’t particularly care for the first one I used, though I could just feel the years falling away from my ass (or so I imagined). The second variant of the Elliptical had hand levers attached to it, so as you peddle-shuffle and move your arms at the same time. The motion was sort of like a toddler learning how to cross-country ski. I liked this second variant a lot, because it moved my arms more. I commented to the trainer that I liked this one because of that.

  • Treadmill — Realizing I had never used one before by the way I stood on it, the trainer warned me to put my feet to the side of the conveyor belt before hitting the QUICKSTART button (all machines had one). Thus, I narrowly avoided one of those cartoon gym moments, when the noob flies off the treadmill. I wasn’t looking forward to the treadmill, because it looked super boring, but it actually sort of grew on me. You have to maintain a fluid rhythm to stay in place. There’s also TV to watch. You can kind of move and zone out. Not nearly as bad as I thought. The trainer showed me some alternative standing and holding positions too, suggesting I try taking longer strides if I wanted when I inquired about it. He said 2.5 miles per hour was a good walking speed, though clearly there were people actually running on the treadmill. They looked like gazelles.

  • Stationary Bike — Sit on a bike, and peddle. I was bored before I even got on it. I guess when I’m on a bike, I want to go somewhere. I guess it wasn’t a bad way to cool down.

Afterwards, the trainer showed me how to stretch out:

  • Leg Stretches — sit against the wall on the mat, one left straight out, the other pulled in. Reach toward the stretched out leg until you feel it pulling on the backs of the leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch to other leg.

  • Squatting Stretch — put the bottom of your feet against each other, pull them in, let the legs flop to the side like you are sitting crossed-legged, and stretch the inner thigh. Hold 30 seconds.

  • Lower Back Stretch — Lie on back, relax the upper body and make sure it’s contacting the mat. Lift both knees toward you, hugging with arms. Make sure upper body is relaxed. Pull them up, vary the machine a bit. Do this for like 30-40 seconds.

  • Stretch The Body — Lying on back, stretch arms up above your head, and get as LONG as you can.


p>At this point, I was ready for my carton of milk and cupcake, but there were none forthcoming. I even asked about it, but all I got was a laugh in response. Harrumph.


All in all, I did 40 minutes of cardio, and I got sweaty, and I actually felt really good afterwards. We’ll see if this is the case tomorrow…I may be sore. Next week, I have a second session scheduled to go over the weight training machines. Until then, I’m planning on going every day to do about 30-40 minutes of the same thing to see what it’s like and try to get addicted to it as a habit.

Before I left, I asked about eating beforehand. The trainer said not to eat too much, no more than 1/4 of a meal. I mentioned that I typically don’t eat breakfast, and he said (predictably) that this was the MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY. I asked him why, and he said it was because while we’re sleeping, our body metabolism shuts off. The first meal of the day signals it to turn back on again, and start burnin’ calories. I also learned that the reason you want to eat a lot of small regular meals is so your body doesn’t go into “calorie hoarding” mode. The description reminded me of older people who grew up during a depression or wartime famine; they had been so conditioned not to know when their next meal would be, they would hoard as much as possible. You probably know someone of an older generation who loves going to CostCo and buys tons of laundry detergent, way more than anyone reasonably (in today’s age) would need. But you know, it just puts them at ease so they don’t bite your head off :-)

So, if you want your body to run efficiently, you need to maintain it at predictable intervals. This covers sleeping times, drinking enough water, and when and what you are eating. The overall principle seems to be surprise your body as little as possible, except perhaps in the case of weight training when you DO want your body to start hoarding muscle.

I’m looking forward to trying this all myself again tomorrow. Overall, not a bad “first day of school” :-)

» The mystery continues in Part 2


  1. Mike 16 years ago

    Welcome to the club. In not time you’ll be checking yourself out in the mirror and calling everyone “bro”. It’s a brave new world for you. Good call on the clothes though. Nothing beats good, old, “gym teacher” shorts and shirt.
    Hang in there, don’t get frustrated, try to find the fun in it. If you get really bored, shoot me an email. I know people who can get you a really fun workout.


  2. ab 16 years ago

    Reverse the motion on the eliptical (stand on the machine like you normally do, but instead of walking forward, move your legs like you are walking backwards) and you will find that you don’t like the eliptical nearly as much as you thought you did….but it is a great exercise.

  3. ab 16 years ago

    Oh yeah,

    Books on tape (MP3s from on the treadmill makes the time fly and if you are listening to businessy books you can be multi-tasking as well.

    We got a guy in our gym that actually does conference calls on his crackberry while on the treadmill…that is NOT cool (very annoying to the rest of us.)

  4. ab 16 years ago

    Oh, one more thing…

    It is about 40 minutes on a treadmill to work off one venti caramel macchiato (regular milk) or about 15 minutes to work off a low fat one.

    I got a huge Starbucks monkey on my back as well.  Being at the gym is easy compared to breaking the caffiene dependency.

  5. Jed Christiansen 16 years ago

    Well done, David!  Getting back into a workout routine can be difficult, but incredibly rewarding.  I only really managed to do it once I had a specific reason: sports.

    The sport I got into, rowing, might be a great one for you to try, too!  (Particularly in New England.)  It requires strength and cardio, isn’t bad on any of your joints, you can do it at any age (there are competitive divisions for people in their 80’s) and very team-oriented.  I’m sure there are some clubs in the area where you could do at least a beginner’s course.  Just a thought, I’ve really enjoyed it!

    Again, good for you.  Keep it up!

  6. Greg 16 years ago

    Good luck with your new workout. Sounds like you’re off to a good start.  I’ve had definite success stretching after working out.  It seems to prevent stiffness and soreness and keep me limber so I don’t need to warm up and stretch out before my next workout.

    You definitely want to find something you can watch or listen to while you perform cardio.  I’ve got an elliptical machine at home but without my T.V. and DVD player there I’m not sure I’d use it.


  7. Robert 'Groby' Blum 16 years ago

    Good for you, David!

    And yes, stretching before workout is a bad idea. Your muscles & tendons aren’t warmed up yet. That means they are rather inflexible. As a result, stretching will put stress on the joints (where your muscles ar connected) as opposed to actually stretching and elongating muscle fibers. And if you try to “push through the pain”, as many people do, you will do even more harm. It’s perfectly possible to rupture a tendon when stretching hard while cold.

    (You can rupture them when warmed up, too, but it takes quite a bit more effort ;)

    As for the morning meal, try a banana. Or half a banana. It provides calcium & vitamins, it’s actually filling, and yet won’t make you sluggish during workout. (Alternatively, if you can’t stomach the idea of bananas, make yourself a fruit shake)

    Since you seem to be a social person, I’d suggest that – in the longer term – you might want to look into joining a running group for your cardio. It’s fun to have a nice jog with a group of friends, discussing whatever crosses your mind.

    And for the boring part of the gym (you will get bored with cardio, at some point), podcasts are a great thing.

  8. Bo 16 years ago

    A few tips on workout clothes:  For the most part, polyester is much better than cotton.  Cotton absorbs sweat, while polyester wicks it away, keeping you cooler and drier.  The only time this is actually a disadvantage is when you sweat a lot (like me, all the time), and you’re right next to a hottie on a treadmill.  Unfortunately, this is a lose-lose, as even the cotton shirt can’t help my sweat volume.  Hand towel required!!

    Wicking workout clothes tend to be very expensive, however, if you aren’t careful.  Fortunately, Champion stuff at Target tends to be pretty decent, and very affordable.

    Elliptical machines are a GOD-SEND for people with joint or back problems.  I haven’t been on one in years, but I lost my first 40 pounds almost exclusively through cardio on them, back before my body could handle running again.  Use the ones that also have upper body motion whenever you can.

  9. Kaala 16 years ago

    Awesome move!  I’ve been “working out” now for years and involved with lots of activities for a while (e.g. soccer, wrestling, surfing, bball, etc). read lots of stuff and have a gym (free weights) in my garage.  the workout that has kept me the longest and has produced the most results is crossfit (  For your goals that you listed I have not found a better approach.  I’m now involved in competitive grappling and gone into my first tourny a few months back in some of the best shape of my life (40yo, male).  check it out…Have fun!

  10. Britt 16 years ago

    Nice job Dave.

    Don’t be surprised if you find your sleep needs changing, especially in the beginning. Your body usually ends up needing more sleep to compensate for the extra effort you’re making. You can easily fall into the trap of “feeling too tired” to workout if you don’t get enough sleep.

    Also, if possible, you’ll recover faster if you can eat a small mix of complex carbs and protein within a 1/2 hour after finishing your workout.

  11. Fred 16 years ago

    Dude, you are the best novice EVER!  You again have shown why we read you (we being all of us who tune in to see what’s new with you).  I never would have considered half the things that you were faced with starting out.

    On one hand I was kept in stitches (quite frankly a tad surprised you didn’t go into underwear selection).  On the other hand, as per usual, astounded with the clarity you explain how you went about it, and what the experience was like.

    As for Groby’s quote about not stretching early,, maybe not straight away, but as you warm, do spend time stretching.  Before anything (since passing the 30 mark) stretching has been an integral part of what I do, I know I’d pull my hamstrings about a thousand more times than I have with just simple stretches,, the key on them,, is NEVER to bounce,, ease into it,, (also trying yoga won’t be a bad idea either).  Eh, just follow you’re certified trainer at the gym and have fun (and has free audiobooks to download,, it’s great (though some of the readers aren’t the best, just keep trying till you find the ones you like)).

    Keep it up!

  12. Robert 'Groby' Blum 16 years ago

    Fred: Sorry, I was only referring to cardio. Yes, before you do muscle work, you should stretch. But as you said, Dave’s trainer is going to cover all that.

  13. Yong Su Kim 16 years ago

    Very funny blog entry. I can sympathize with what it’s like to show up at a gym and confront all these people who seem to know how everything works at the gym.

    Btw, the funniest part for me was the tip from your friend about washing your shirt every day. Highly recommended!

  14. penny 16 years ago

    Go Dave!

    I agree with the daily washing of your shirt. I still have memories of my high school gym lockers (yes, I had two). I can’t stretch right away. I have to warm up first to some degree (run two slow miles?) and THEN stretch and be stretched. My hamstrings are too short and if I were to stretch them straight out they’d probably snap. oh and stretching again at “cool down”

    As for shorts.. I sweat a TON so plain cotton shorts are not so comfy for me. I like the silky mesh ones that are also a bit longer. I forget what they are called.

    As for your justification of the cost, I may have just signed up for a local gym myself with that. I think my husband and I just assumed that fee was yearly. We’ll have to double check that. And then decide if we’ll still live in this area next year.

    Good luck and have fun!

  15. Cynthia 16 years ago

    Congrats, Dave!  Wish my health insurance would reimburse for gym membership!  :-)  But I have a weight bench with accessories, a recumbent exercise bike and an elliptical with the arm attachments in my garage and work out exclusively there now.

    You were very wise to get a trainer for initial sessions.  I was surprised he had you do 40 minutes of cardio on your first visit to the gym, but you’re young enough that he probably wasn’t concerned.

    Right about NOT stretching before you warm up.  The “old” thinking was that it was good to stretch before (remember photos of runners of yore doing a lot of stretching before any warm up).  Now they believe it leads to injury and it is now recommended to do cardio warmup, then stretch before doing any weight work.

    I’d recommend a backpack or daypack if you don’t want to buy a gym bag.  They work well and lots of people use them.  Also, ALWAYS (at my former gyms it’s been a requirement) carry a hand-size towel with you.  All machines are to be “wiped down” after use (most gyms have wiping stations with spray bottle and rags or paper towels you can use for that), but the towel can be used one side for your own facial and body perspiration and the other side for the machines if your gym doesn’t supply the spray/wipes.  Nothing is nastier than going to a machine and have the previous user’s sweat all over it.

    Another HUGE tip, for which the other gym members will adore you . . don’t wear cologne or aftershave when you go to the gym, and don’t wear a heavily fragranced deodorant.  MANY people have allergies, asthma, etc., and cannot tolerate the fragrances in a gym that body heat activates.  I have seen gym personnel ask women (especially) to leave the workout floor and shower to get their fragrances off.

    Keep up the great work and will look forward to your progress reports!!

  16. Cynthia 16 years ago

    P.S.  And always stretch after a workout.  I’ve been continually amazed at the number of especially men who do not stretch when they’re finished with a workout.  It’s great for your flexibility all over, plus most men have notoriously inflexible hams (hamtrings), to begin with.

  17. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Wow, there are a lot of passionate work-out devotees out there! Thanks for all the advice, all! It’s also good to know that the stretching afterwards is the New Way…thanks for the feedback!

    mike: Thanks! Looking forward to the experience, bro! :-)

    ab: Hm, that’s a great idea. I also never had a reason to buy an iPod before, but this may be the perfect application. I’ll have to try that backwards elliptical thing…today I started to, but my legs started to lock up and I decided to just walk the treadmill. I might take the day off tomorrow to let my legs heal a bit.

    Jed: I haven’t yet thought of a sport yet, but knowing this is a gateway to more activity is a good incentive. Moving around fast is fun :-) I’m not so much of a team sports person, though who knows…maybe that will change.

    Robert: I don’t like bananas! But I have been buying them regularly precisely because they’re good for me. I think of them not as a treat, but as a giant squishy pill. Someone suggested making a yogurt smoothy out of it, which might be OK. I never liked running much, but maybe with a group it would be fun. Strangely, running in place seems more rewarding than running a circuit in an environment that I find kind of boring, where I have to worry about stepping on stuff.

    Bo: Ah, that’s good! I think the shirts I got were actually some kind of wicking stuff, so it’s probably not cotton. I just bought some champion shorts, because the material seems a little nicer than the Russell stuff I had gotten, also picked up a shirt. Thanks for the info on elliptical for joint/back problems, that’s good to know!

    Kaala: Inspiring! Thanks for sharing!

    Britt: I did notice that I needed more sleep today. Thanks for the post-workout tip too. It occurs to me that I really need to think my entire food strategy now, because I have not been eating for maintaining optimum, uh, alertness.

    Fred: Thanks :-) I didn’t INTEND it to be funny, but I guess my good humor came out :-) Thanks for the link. I’m thinking it would be nice to listen to the entire back catalog of This American Life while I workout…that would be AWESOME.

    Yong su: Hey man! Yes, that comment from my friend was pretty amusing. I thought about making a comment about women and their silly notions of not being stinky, but then I thought that it probably was a good idea :-)

    Penny: Maybe it’s more expensive where you are, I really had no metrics. A friend of mine said she paid $100/month for hers. Mine doesn’t have any free towels though…it’s fairly spartan. New Hampshire also has a contract length limit of 1 year (it’s 2 years in Mass), no idea what it’s like elsewhere.

    Cynthia: You should call your health insurance and see if they have it…apparently it’s pretty common. As I completely pay for my own health insurance, it’s nice to get a tiny fraction of it back. But since you have your own gym, you’re all set :-) Some day, when I have my own awesome bed & breakfast / conference / creativity center on 400 rolling acres of mixed terrain, I will have my own fitness center! And a garage, finally :-D Glad to hear that 40 minutes wasn’t a bad start. I actually felt it today, though…I started the bouncy machine and my legs started to lock up…maybe it was too soon. I ended up treadmilling for a good amount after that to keep the momentum, then went to some other machines for about 5 minutes apiece before figuring I shouldn’t push it.

    I actually forgot to stretch afterwards, but after reading your comment when I got home did it then. So thanks!!! I actually am pretty flexible, and can touch my fingers to the floor. My shoulders and upper body are less flexible, though.

  18. Jon 16 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    Great to hear you have made it to the mythical land of the gym! I used to go, but alas, no more. Stick to cycling these days.

    Look forward to hearing about your new found interest. Have you considered the diet may need a change too? What about water intake per day? very important.



  19. ab 16 years ago

    I must live in the lap of luxury…our office building has a ‘mini-gym’ on the first floor and it costs only $150/year and our company picks up half and does it via payroll deduction ($5/payroll)

    It has brand new first tier Life Fitness equipment, just not that many stations (4 treadmills, 3 elipicals, 3 bikes, and only one each of the weight machines.  But it has lockrooms and showers and mid day workouts are my salvation.

  20. Bill James-Wallace 16 years ago

    David, great job, Keep it up young man (I’m older than you!). It’s a great feeling that I wish I had kept up a few years ago. I haven’t gained weight but a brisk walk does me in. I don’t want big muscles either but I’d like ‘tone’ to be more than a dial on my radio!!
    I’ve found the ‘300 Workout’ (the workout they gave the actors in the film) at and am doing the cut down version (The 150 workout) – well I would be if I got off my arse!
    I’ll be back to see how you’re doing.
    ab – I am stunned you have worked out how much exercise can work off the effects of a coffee! :)