First Steps for Seniors at the Gym

I’ve written a number of recent blog posts about my current experience in working out at a gym, but little of that will help a beginner. I’m writing today to the older person who is on the high side of 40, 50, 60, and beyond, but a lot of what I’m about to say can apply to anyone who has never been to a gym before or who hasn’t been inside of one in decades.

Before I begin, I want to repeat my oft mentioned caveat that before beginning any exercise program, please have a complete examination done by your doctor. Tell your physician that you want to begin an exercise program which includes both resistance and cardio routines and find out if you have any medical condition or disability that could limit your performance.

All that said, I suppose the easiest way to do this is to take you on a sort of “tour” of the gym where I workout.

If you want to try out a gym to see if it’s right for you but you don’t want to commit, most gyms will give you a guest pass or let you go into a trial period. This can be anywhere from a single session to a week. See if you can try out the gym in more than one free session, especially if you aren’t sure about becoming a member, and especially if you have no idea what sort of workout routine to start out with. You’ll need time to work with the different types of equipment to see how they operate and how your body adapts to a beginning exercise program.

Assuming you’ve never been in a gym before or you haven’t been in one in a dozen years or more, you likely won’t know where to start. Several years ago, when I wanted to join a gym, I scheduled an appointment at a local club with someone who knew how the machines worked and could give me a basic overview of how to begin a program.

I don’t recommend walking into a gym cold and asking the first person you see behind the reception desk how to get started. Often, they are someone who is there just to check in members and they may not have any detailed knowledge about the gym hardware and its operation. Make sure the person you’re talking to is a trainer or otherwise if familiar with equipment and workouts, and that they can communicate the relevant information to you. Be a good consumer and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I know that entering a gym for the first time can be intimidating, but this is your body, your health, and even your life we’re talking about. You’re too important to not advocate for yourself and you’re potentially making a purchase, so do your homework and ask all the questions you want. Also make sure you understand what’s being explained to you, and if you don’t, ask for a more detailed response.

into the gymI’ll get into beginning workout routines next time. For now, I want to walk you through the very basics of starting out with exercising, starting with day one.

The first thing you do is walk into the gym. That probably seems simple, but what if you feel uncomfortable in a gym for some reason? If you haven’t participated in any sort of regular exercise in a while, you are probably not in shape. That means you could be overweight, or very thin, or otherwise feel like you don’t look very good.

I know for me, I thought that I’d look foolish working out with my weak, overweight body in the middle of all those healthy people.

It took me a long time to push past my inhibitions, but I came to realize that I had just as much right to be there as anyone else, no matter how strong they were or how fit they appeared. The only person you are at the gym to impress is yourself.

Also, looking around, I saw that there were plenty of “ordinary” people at the gym, some older than I was when I first started, and some carrying more weight than I did. Chances are, whatever gym you decide to join, you’ll see a lot of people working out who are just like you and who are there for the same reasons; to improve their health and quality of life.

As a beginner, you probably won’t spend much, if any time, in the free weight room. That’s okay. If you’ve never worked out before or it’s been a lot of years since you have, your first goal is just to get used to the increase in activity.

There are three general portions of a workout: resistance work, cardio, and stretching. That’s the order I’d recommend you approach a workout but that’s not set in stone. In fact, according to this article from Flex Magazine, it doesn’t matter if you do cardio before resistance or resistance before cardio. I’ve tried both and for me, I find I perform resistance training better if I put it before cardio.

(A caveat about Flex Magazine is that its target audience are serious to professional body builders, so what they write isn’t necessarily applicable to older people in the gym like you and me. I read their material to get ideas, not because I expect to get huge.)

You’ve probably heard that it’s a good idea to warm up before exercising. Even if you decide to do resistance work first, you probably expect to get on a cardio machine for between five to ten minutes to warm up, that is, to increase your heart rate and respiration, and to slowly accustom your body to an increase in activity.

If you do resistance training first, an alternative is to do one or two warm up sets of whatever resistance exercise you’re stating out with. Just choose a much lighter weight than your working weight, and perform a series of reps, maybe up to 10 or even 20 since the weight is light. That should sufficiently warm you up so that you can move into your working sets.

Cardio

A lot of the equipment at my gym is made by Life Fitness and you’ll probably be working with various similar cardio machines such as treadmills, ellipticals, and stair climbers. All of these devices can be programmed to adjust the intensity in a variety of ways including different “terrains”, speeds, durations, and so forth. Before starting out with any of these machines, you should have gotten an explanation from a gym staffer or trainer as to how these machines work and at what level and program a beginner such as yourself should start.

senior cardioRemember from what I said on my blog post on cardio, more isn’t necessarily better, so it’s more to your advantage to underestimate your cardio activity performance than to overestimate and exhaust yourself. You can always increase your activity upward as your body adjusts, but wearing yourself down right away will just result in you becoming discouraged and quitting the gym and exercise altogether.

These machines typically have built-in sensors on the hand grips that will monitor and display your heart rate. Know what you’re target heart rate is before you ever enter the gym and adjust your activity level so that you don’t exceed the targeted cardio activity.

Resistance Training

I’ve been avoiding using the term “weight training” because resistance work can be accomplished by any number of activities or types of equipment (or no equipment at all). At my gym, both free weights and resistance equipment are available, and most of the latter is branded Life Fitness Strength. These machines allow you to work the various muscle groups that can also be addressed using free weights, but they are “easier” because you don’t have to balance the weight while you’re trying to lift it. Before using these machines for the first time, you should have gotten information from the gym staff on their proper use. I say “proper” because each machine, with just a few exceptions, is designed to be used exactly one way for one purpose. The link I provided will let you have a look at each machine this company makes and explain its function, so please have a look. Increasing strength and endurance is a good goal to shoot for but while doing so, always stay safe. Don’t risk injury by improper use of the equipment which includes not being familiar with how the machines work.

Stretching

Not only do we lose strength and muscle mass as we get older, we also lose flexibility. Our body parts just don’t stretch and bend as well as they used to, so stretching is just as important as cardio and resistance training.

There are all kinds of stretching exercises you can use, but as a senior, remember that just like any other exercise, one size does not fit all. As we get older, our bodies change, sometimes in ways we’re not aware of until we try to stress ourselves physically.

According to Stetching-Exercises-Guide.com, the basic guidelines for stretching for seniors (although this is probably good advice for everyone) are:

  1. Start slowly. Chances are it’s taken years for you to get this stiff. It’s not going to be fixed in a day.
  2. Drink plenty of fluids unless your doctor has advised you against this.
  3. Don’t hold your breath during stretching. Relaxed breathing actually helps your muscles relax.
  4. Always be aware of the position of your spine. Any extremes in curvature can make you vulnerable to injury.
  5. Warm your muscles briefly prior to stretching by taking a short walk or using some light dumbbells.

As far as the fifth point is concerned, if you’re doing your stretches after cardio and resistance work, your body is more than sufficiently warmed up. You should also have a water bottle with you and have been continually replacing lost fluids during your workout period. Staying hydrated only improves your performance.

You should also avoid doing any sort of bouncing moves. Since you’re less flexible, muscle and connective tissue that would have once stretched under such conditions may now painfully tear. You’re exercising to improve your physical condition, not to injure yourself.

Hold any stretch for up to 60 seconds. You may have to work up to that amount of time so be patient with yourself if any part of this is too difficult at first.

Don’t forget to breathe. I’ll go through the specifics of how to breathe, especially during resistance training, at a later time, but there’s no point at which, in any type of exercise, it’s appropriate to hold your breath.

Stretch until you feel some resistance and then hold there. It’s okay to “feel” the stretch, but if what you’re feeling instead is pain, back off a bit or stop.

stretchingA site called ElderGym.com has great advice about stretching and seniors, and I suggest reading their suggestions thoroughly.

The links I’ve provided to both “stretching” sites have lists of many different stretching exercises appropriate for seniors (you may have to scroll down on those pages to find them).

Even in a busy gym, you should still find the floor space to put down a mat for stretching. However, stretching also is something you can do at any time and with any other workout program such as walking, or even as the very first routine you apply to becoming more healthy, before doing any other program at all.

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!

Hopefully, this will go without saying but I’ll say it anyway. If at anytime during any part of your workout, you start to experience pain, shortness of breath (beyond what is expected), dizziness, lightheadedness, or any other signs of distress, stop what you’re doing immediately. At the very least, you’ve probably overexerted yourself or you may be suffering from something more serious. This is another good reason especially for seniors to have a workout partner you can let know you’re not doing well, and don’t hesitate to request medical assistance if need be.

I’m not trying to scare you or put you off from exercising and I’ve never had or witnessed anything like this in my gym experience, but when you’re talking about “old engines,” and especially when you’re just starting an exercise program, remember that your body isn’t used to the additional activity and it may not react as expected. Chances are though, if you build up slowly, you’ll be fine. After all, if a 91-year-old woman can start weight training for the first time in her life, then there’s a right path for you to start working out, too.

And So On

There’s a lot more to cover in getting started at the gym such as gym etiquette, what ancillary equipment to take with you to the gym, and beginning workout programs. I’ll write about those in upcoming blog posts here at the Old Man’s Gym.

In order to succeed, we must first believe we can.

Nikos Kazantzakis

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