By Dr. Mercola
Maybe it's occurred to you that joining a gym might be a good idea to actually maintain the fitness routine you swore you'd stay on, which faded to a halt within a few short weeks after January 1.
And maybe you've given serious thought to getting a fitness membership but haven't gotten around to it yet. Whatever your motivation level — or lack thereof —an interesting study at Iowa State University might move you in the right direction.
Researchers rounded up 405 generally healthy adult volunteers, half of whom had been sitting on the sidelines, so to speak, for at least three months. The other half had been bona fide gym members for at least 30 days.
Heart rates, resting blood pressure and body mass indexes were measured, and each participant filled out questionnaires about how much time they spent exercising, sitting or on some sort of body-engaging activities each week.
A Little Exercise Can Do a Lot
In analyzing the responses to determine which of the participants met the U.S. recommended guidelines for physical activity, the researchers used a set criteria: a total of 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week, including at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities, such as weight lifting.
The differences found between the two groups were "pretty dramatic and surprising," according to Duck-chul Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology and one of the study researchers.
Here's why: Non-members averaged only 137 minutes of exercise a week, while the gym members put in an average of 484 minutes a week. Only 18 percent of those exercising on their own met the guidelines for both physical activity and strength training, compared to 75 percent of the gym members. Time observed:
"Overall, the researchers calculated, a gym membership was related to 14 times higher odds of meeting weekly physical activity guidelines. The results were similar in both men and women, and were adjusted for health issues like … arthritis and asthma.
Not only did gym members exercise more; they also had better cardiovascular measures and were less likely to be obese. Gym-goers … tended to have lower resting heart rates, higher cardiorespiratory fitness and smaller waist circumferences than their non-member peers."1
Gym Memberships Offer More
Drawing on their experience, the scientists figured they had a pretty good understanding of the sedentary habits of the non-gym members. According to Lee:
"We thought maybe they'd be more tired, or be satisfied they'd done enough for the day. Physical activity outside of the gym was the same for both groups. For non-members, joining a gym really may increase overall activity levels."2
Lee added that it's possible more active people are simply more likely to join a gym. Further, while the study was conducted in a city where lots of health-club options were available, in more rural areas, gyms aren't always available.
But the premise of gym membership is that you show up. Not to do so is a waste of both money and time, and guarantees that nothing will change in regard to fitness. According to Lee:
"It's true that some people with a gym membership do not go regularly, just as some people who don't have memberships still go out and run or bike and still meet the guidelines."3
Lee said the study "supports the idea that joining a gym can help people who aren't getting enough exercise on their own," noting that only 50 percent of people in the U.S. get the amount of aerobic activity experts recommend, and only about 20 percent meet the guidelines for strength training.
While gyms offer weights and/or resistance machines for people to use in order to improve their muscles, many people don't engage in the day-to-day activities that could offer the same results, he said.
Fitness: Options for Thought and Action
As you might suspect, there are more reasons to commit to joining a gym besides weight loss or bulking muscle.
Lead study author Elizabeth Schroeder, an Iowa State alumna, said she hopes the research findings encourage people to look for and settle into a routine at a gym or fitness studio. She adds:
"Some people may enjoy being at a gym and doing their own workout routine, while others may desire group classes that potentially foster a social aspect, fun environment, consistent schedule and a workout designed for you. Either way, they both involve accumulating physical activity, and that's the goal."4
James Chestnut, a doctor of chiropractic with a Bachelor of Physical Education, a Master of Science in exercise physiology, plus a post-graduate certification in Wellness, says people should view exercise as a necessity for health rather than something they choose to do — or not. He noted in a past interview:
"Exercise is as important as vitamin C or breathing or love or anything else. Exercise must be seen as a nutrient, a required nutrient and an essential nutrient."
In his view, having the right mindset is crucial, but sometimes you have to start small, especially people who've avoided working out, are morbidly obese or even those who say they just don't have time to commit to a gym or any kind of workout regimen, for that matter.
Time and motivation are factors everyone deals with. Mentally, you know how important exercise is, even for lowering stress but, as they say, the spirit is often weak. If you fall into this category, what you may need most is a shift in the way you think about exercise.
Motivation: Focus on the Positive
Rather than thinking about whether you want to do it, and whether you have the energy, time, focus or motivation to join a gym or carve out a portion of your time for a workout — as one wise person once said, just do it.
This might be a motivating thought: More than half of the adults in the U.S. don't get the recommended amount of exercise, and 1 in 4 adults don't exercise at all,5 but that's not going to be you!
Negative internal dialogue can be a literal killer. The key is to become the "boss" of it, rather than allowing your usual knee-jerk patterns of doubt or hopelessness to set in.
If all you can muster right now is the choice to stand up, walk outside and fill your lungs with a handful of cleansing breaths, it's a start. Working with reluctant exercisers, Chestnut said he likes to start gradually, and asks:
"'Would you be willing to buy some exercise gear, some clothes, some proper shoes, and would you be willing to go outside in the morning and deep-breathe, say something positive about yourself and perhaps go for a walk for three minutes?
What are you willing to do? Are you willing to go for a walk?' And I've got everything from starting to do some pushups to just standing knee bends — it's all in a progression."
For some, focusing on the positive is like taking "baby steps" at first, which before long becomes a natural pace. Perhaps in the privacy of your own home, you can take on more, even if it's only 10 minutes a day of focused body movement. When you get more confident, which typically happens when the positive effects of regular exercise become evident, you can start looking for a gym unless, of course, you want to jump right in.
Why Join a Gym?
It should be noted that joining a gym is not necessary to get and stay fit. Some of the most challenging workouts, including bodyweight exercises, can be done right in your own home with no equipment necessary. So, if you can't afford a gym membership, don't have one nearby or simply prefer to work out on your own, you can still reap the rewards of exercise.
However, many people do enjoy exercising in a gym setting. According to U.K.-based personal fitness trainer Scott Laidler in The Telegraph, when you fill out a gym membership card:
"The normal intention is to head there a couple of times a week to get some pretty attainable results. The reality is that the more you get drawn into the training culture, the more you become invested in your results; healthy living starts to creep into every facet of your lifestyle." 6
Laidler has more advice: When you take the plunge and join a gym, check your "cool" at the door and don't let other peoples' perceived fitness levels intimidate you.
"Gyms can seem like intimidating places, filled with people with amazing bodies who seem to know exactly what they are doing … Everyone has to start somewhere, so forget about how you compare to others and throw yourself into your training."7
At a gym, you'll likely be introduced to new concepts in strength training, building muscle, aerobic, active stretching and interval training, as well as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
One thing that becomes apparent when you begin working out at a gym is that switching up your fitness routines and activities can help increase your energy level, strength and yes, even your motivation. Sure, you can keep running and doing squats, but you'll soon learn new techniques that work new areas of your body and even get you fit in less time.
What Can You Expect From Committing to Regular Exercise?
As you already know, some approaches boost motivation more than just deciding to do something. There's nothing like a little accountability to keep you going. But here's something else that might push you to take that first step: A regular workout routine boosts your health in ways you may not even be aware of.
- Physical benefits range from helping you fight off colds and flu to prevention of even more serious diseases, such as cancer. Exercise can help lower your blood pressure, reduce your insulin levels to stave off and even reverse type 2 diabetes, strengthen your heart and help prevent Parkinson's disease.8
- Studies show that exercise can even improve your memory, grow new blood vessels in your brain and even enlarge your hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.9
- On a deeper, even cellular, level, regular exercise can offset cell damage from free radicals, caused by everything from air pollution to toxic chemicals throughout your home, office and even your food. Exercise can also boost your mood and even increase your productivity.
- Besides strengthening your muscles and helping to control your weight, exercise can help slow down the inevitable signs of aging by as much as 10 years,10 so you're more able to grab your walking shoes to hit the trail rather than grabbing your oxygen tank just to leave the house.
There are social benefits to joining a gym, too, as you're likely to meet new people who, like you, enjoy an active lifestyle. Beyond the gym, you can also seek out sports leagues in your community or work organization, or join specialty exercise classes, like yoga and Pilates, to enjoy the rewards of both fitness and new friends.
A few extra things to note: Plan to do your workouts when they work best for your schedule and energy levels and listen to your body. Earlier-in-the-day workouts have proven beneficial for burning fat and regulating your circadian rhythm, although other people prefer afternoon workouts or even evening gym sessions.
You're not likely to reach optimal wellness without making exercise part of your routine. In fact, choosing to do so is arguably one of the most crucial determinations you can make if you're interested in gaining — or regaining — optimal health.