Jenn Reese Writer, Artist, Geek

Facing Fear: The Gym


Earlier today, I realized how much I’ve been grieving for running. I only did it a few months, but I had already fallen in love. I loved the time by myself, I loved being away from my computer, I loved following my own schedule, and I especially loved being outside and feeling connected to the world. I thought about ignoring my doctor and continuing to run, but my friends wisely reeled me back. Now I’m resigned to life without running, but I’m not over the loss.

Later today, I joined the local YMCA. My doctor recommended swimming as an alternative to running, and I’ve always wanted to use the fancy cardio and weight room machines. It cost more money than I should have spent, but I did it. It’s a gift to myself, one that I’ve been putting off for far too long.

Only… I am afraid of gyms.

I had previously signed up for a guest pass and then never gone. I went with my workout clothes, walked around to all the rooms, and then fled with my tail between my legs. I kind of understand the fear. I’ve never belonged to a gym before, none of my partners have ever belonged to gyms, and I simply don’t know the logistics and etiquette. Unlike martial arts, you don’t get to start as a white belt. You have to already know how to do everything. (I can sign up to have someone show me the weight machines. Will it look dorky if I bring a notebook and take notes?)

Anyway, there it is. I bought goggles for swimming, my workout clothes are ready. I’m determined to do this, regardless of how much irrational fear I feel. Please, hit me with whatever advice you’ve got — the more practical and specific, the better.

About the author

Jenn Reese


  • I'm also out of the running game–no reason to screw up my ankle and knee. I can understand your sorrow.

    I have 2 suggestions:

    1) Treat it like a new operating system on your computer–just mess around with the machines.

    but better yet, especially if your gym membership includes it,

    2) sign up for a week or 2 with a physical trainer. That'll make a world of difference.

    Good luck!

    • LOL, I'm totally going to think of the machines as an operating system now! I have no trouble fooling around with stuff on my computer, because no one can see. I think I'm fearing the disdain and pity of strangers. But I will get over it. I never think about other people in kung fu — I'm too focused on myself. I guess I need to do that here, too.


  • I'm envious. I'm not allowed to lift anymore. I know it's intimidating, but get a trainer for a week to explain the mahines. Better yet, treat it like any other research subject and get a lot of books and become an expert. I read 20 or so different books and that helped. Sites… stumptious are awesome too.

    I still have arnold's Enclyopedia of Bodybuilding on my shelf. Since I no longer use it I can send it to you of you'd like…

    • I am actually a huge Stumptuous fan already! And I have 3 books on weightlifting — research became a delaying tactic for me, I think. But most of the books are specific topics. Maybe I can grab the Arnold book when I'm at your house in a few weeks?

  • Here's the thing. Everybody at that gym was new once, too, and didn't know what to do.

    The general etiquette is, if it's busy, don't spend more than twenty minutes on any one machine. Wipe the machine down with a towel or spray bottle when you are done. And if people hit on you, mention your need to get home to your (whatever).

    Also, remember you're there to have fun.

    I like pullups. With an assisted pullup machine, anybody can do them. And they are *awesome*.

    • Thank you for the specific etiquette suggestions — that's incredibly helpful.

      I am soooo looking forward to the assisted pullup machine, if they have one. I suck at unassisted pullups, but I would so like to be awesome!

  • Yay for you, signing up! Your first commenter gave great advice about the new operating system.

    The other thing is, remember that everybody had to start at the beginning. The first couple of times I went in to swim at the rec center I felt like a big dork, but now it's just normal. Plus my swimsuit matches my tat.

    Good luck!

    • I love how you type different names into the comment box every time. She-Ra made me laugh so hard!

      So… any advice on how many laps I should start with? Or what stroke? I was assuming I would do freestyle and breast stroke, but I don't really know how to formulate a swimming workout. Do you just do laps until you're tired? I haven't swum in thousands of years. My technique is going to suck!

      • I didn't have much of a method at first–just what you said, I swam until I was tired. Then I started counting laps, and now I swim at least a mile, usually more. I do all freestyle, no breaks, but that's partly because I can't do breaststroke 'cos of my knee. You should get a nice, all-body fuzzy-muscle feeling from swimming, and a nice endorphin rush, so I'd say swim until you're tired is actually a really good way to go about it.

        Lately I've actually thought about taking an adult swim class to improve my technique and learn how to do flip turns.

        • Man, my freestyle sucked this morning! I kept getting water up my nose or in my throat and losing what little technique I had. I ended up alternating freestyle, breast stroke, and side stroke. (A lap is back and forth, right? So a mile is 72 laps, or 144 lengths? CRAZY.)

          • Oh my dog, no! A mile in a 25 meter pool is 64 lengths/32 laps. In a 25 yard pool a mile is 66 lengths/33 laps.

            I hope it was enjoyable, despite the nose-water.

            Tomorrow is my swimming day, and I can't wait.

  • first of all…YAY!!! congrats.

    now second of all, yes! I don't know your gym specifically, but a lot will set you up with someone to take you around to show you how to operate the machines. After all, if you do it wrong, and they wouldn't show you how to do it right when you asked – if you get hurt….BIG lawsuit. So, most have someone they will schedule you with to show you how to use them.

    If not, almost all gyms give free day passes. Get one from yours and take a friend who know how to use them, and get them to show you.

    OR, most of the machines have pretty clear diagrams on how to use them. Watch someone use it, then between that, and reading the diagram, you should be able to get a pretty solid idea.

    The big things are really take a towel to wipe down the machines, and no more than 30 min on a cardio piece if people are waiting.

    • Great idea about bringing a friend to show me how to use everything! I've emailed to have a free "Lifestyles Coach" set me up on the Fitlinxx system the Y uses, and hopefully they'll show me around too.

      Thanks for cheering as I attempt to learn yet another set of skills. Hopefully I won't have to give this up like the running.

  • Every moment in life provides a choice; you can choose to stay home, eat waffles, get fat & get diabetes, or you can choose to excersise. If life has any point, it is to learn over time to make better choices (and some days, clearly the waffles are the better option). Go for yourself, and the etiquette will follow; the only person you need to perform for in you.

  • I love Ys, and I think you made a good choice. Ys are a great mix of people, young and old, beefy and flabby not, dedicated and casual. Everyone has different goals and by and large everyone is respectful of everyone else.

    I also love my Y because it has the "FitLinxx" system that automatically tracks how many pounds I'm lifting at each station and how many reps. And it gives me points for logging cardio workouts. It's a terrific way to keep track of my workouts and my favorite settings for the seat heights & range of motion. And, most importantly, it provides positive feedback. It's INSANELY satisfying to have the computer tell me I lifted 40,000 lbs. in 2 hours.

    Also, I had to schedule an initial walk-thru of the all the machines to get set up with the system. Which seemed like a giant pain in the behind at the time, but was a really great way to ease into using them regularly. Also, it's all free with the membership (which is the best part).

    If your Y doesn't have a the same system–I assume not all Ys have it— you can still schedule a couple intro sessions with a physical trainer. I think it's okay to decline regular physical training sessions by saying, sorry, I don't have the money right now. (And also ack, leave me ALONE!) But it's really useful to have two or three intro sessions, just so you have someone walking you through the machines the first time you use them. And then you've DONE it, so it'll be a little less scary next time?

    And I assume they have a pool and swimming lessons. The university pool is better than my local Y. But I learned to swim at the Y when I was a kid, so I'm still a fan.

    • My Y does have the Fitlinxx system! I've asked for an appointment to get set up. I love your description of it — I will totally love seeing numbers climb. I am very eager to learn how to use all the machines. I saw a rowing machine, and no one is ever on it. That's definitely in my sights.

      Our Y does have a pool, which I hit this morning. I have nothing to compare it to, so it seemed fine. Just a little crowded.

      Thanks for the great suggestions and enthusiasm!

      • Hah, does enthusiasm = typos?

        Yeah, nobody's ever on my stair master. To the point where I worry they'll replace it with a step mill or another elliptical. But in the mean time it's MINE ALL MINE.

    • Omg, the Fitlinxx system is AMAZING!!! I got set up on a bunch of machines today, and I love how it records all the settings for each machine, and the range of motion for the exercise. It was like playing a videogame! I really liked the walk through, because I would never have figured out some of those machines otherwise. I'm going back next weekend to learn some more. (I requested the assisted pullup machine, which isn't normally on the list.) I logged into FitLinxx from home, and am looking forward to seeing how many elephants I can lift. :-D

      • It's great, isn't it! Plus I figured if you had a gym phobia, you'd need the walk-thru.

        The cardio log is also nice. It gives you color-coded "levels" like digital martial arts belts every bazillion fitness points or whatever.

        I use the assisted pull-up and the captain's chair every single time I go, too, but there's no way to record those. So I guess you can mentally add an extra elephant per trip?

  • Yay, Y! I love the Y! I grew up learning to swim at the Y; it's part of family for me. I'm so excited for you! If I'd known you were going to do this, I'd have dragged you to my Y with me while you were up here (if we could've found the time).

    Swimming etiquette: start in the slow lane. If there is one person in the lane, wait for them to get to the end and ask if you can "split the lane" (you each swim on your own side, back and forth); if there are already two people in every lane, ask them both if you can "circle swim" (swim down on the right side and back on the left, all together in a big "circle"). Try not to get into a lane with four people already in it; circle swimming is an exercise in anxiety for me when it gets crowded, b/c I'm always too fast or too slow (or both at once). Best to split a lane, very peaceful.

    My Y puts up both beginner and advanced swimming workouts on a whiteboard, and has a posted sheet that defines all the terms, but I'm still working up to doing the full beginner one. Right now I do: 2x 50 meters (so two laps) freestyle, 2x 50m breaststroke, 2x 50m kickboard (mixing kicking styles), 2x 50m backstroke, repeat the whole thing (and maybe again, as much as I can until I feel nice and tired or am running out of time). Lately I've tried to do some laps harder, others easier, to mix it up. Definitely do the hot tub or sauna or steam after your workouts, before your shower. It's sooooo nice and you deserve it for working out!

    Take the weight room tour and take notes! Don't even feel weird about it. Stumptous is awesome for getting ideas for weight-lifting routines; pay attention to any advice you get on correct form, it's important. I like to eavesdrop on other people's personal training sessions (leave in the earbuds, but turn off the music) as I get great tips that way. My Y has weight lifting circuit classes at different levels, which I haven't taken, but would be a good way to get feedback on form w/out paying for a personal trainer.

    Weight room etiquette: it's ok to ask "Can I work in?" if someone is using a machine/ piece of equipment and is resting between sets, and of course you should let them if they ask you — in my experience, in the women's weight room people just wait until you're all the way done, though, so I do the same. Towel off any sweat and/or put down a towel before you sit/ lay down. If you put weights on the chest press bar, it's courteous to take them off again in case the person after you isn't as strong as you; feel free to ask for help if someone else was rude and you can't move the weights already on the bar.

    If your Y has a women's weight room, use it. No offense meant to any men reading this, but the co-ed room gets, um, stinky. I do sometimes find the co-ed space interesting, but am more inspired by the incredible strong women who workout in the women's room than I am by beefy guys.

    I bring weight-lifting gloves (not totally necessary, but they help keep your grip w/out giving you calluses), iPod, water bottle, towel and sometimes my weight-lifting routine (on paper) to that part of the gym. For swimming I use ear plugs (I get ear infections easily), goggles, swim cap (I have long hair, mind), leave-in special swimming conditioner for under the cap (I also have special shampoo/ conditioner for after to keep it from getting brittle/ green — you might do this b/c you're blonde, actually, and/or wet your hair ahead of time and wear a swim cap), flipflops, and a water bottle. Oh, and towels, of course.

    For both, bring a lock (one w/ a key is best; I use a carabiner to hook it to my water bottle). You might be able to get a small permanent locker at the gym, which helps make sure you have what you need handy.

    Ok, that's enough from me for now :-) I can't wait to hear how you like it, Jenn! I love the YMCA!

    • OMG, you are both ADORABLE and AWESOME! This is a fantastic amount of incredibly useful information. THANK YOU!!!

      I think I've read this post 3 times now. And thank you for the "split the lane" thing — I did that this morning. It made me nervous every time we passed, but I survived. (With a very sloppy set of laps.)

      Sadly, no sauna in the changing room. In fact, no changing stalls, either. Do people just change in front of each other? (I have no experience with this.) I even drove home in my wet suit today, a decision I regretted when I drove to work a little later and managed to soak my jeans. D'oh!

      Why is a lock with a key better than a combination lock?

      So do you bring your work clothes, and just shower after and get dressed? Today I drove home and showered there.

      I have a million questions, but you seem to have all the answers!!

  • When I first started at the gym, most of my fear was not so much looking like a noob (though that played into it–hey, I was in high school, cut my ego some slack). I worried about getting in the way of the Serious Gym-Goers and interfering with the Perfect Workout.

    The way to avoid that in the pool: look for the lane that matches your speed. Most Ys have lanes divided into walking, slow, medium and fast. Start slow. If you find you're coming up fast on everyone, graduate to the faster lanes. If the other swimmers are passing you a lot, drop down. This will change day to day depending on your energy level and the speed of the other swimmers.

    I often do my crawl in the fast lane and switch to the medium for other strokes. And though I'm pretty patient, I do start to get a bit oh-here-we-go when my rhythm is repeatedly broken. More allowance if it's crowded. In that case, if I'm the slow one, I try to let the faster swimmers pass me at the wall–and I really appreciate it when slower swimmers do it for me.

    Have a blast!

    • Nancy, thanks so much for the cornucopia of great advice! I went to swim this morning, and there was a lifeguard on duty. Hadn't been expecting that! I went up and told him I was new and asked for the "house etiquette rules." He was super nice, and I found a lane with a good speed. I was nervous about sharing, but it was okay. The other woman was slow, and I needed frequent breaks, so we were a good match.

      Again, thank you!!

  • Sorry to hear running isn't for you, but YAY for the gym! You got a bunch of good advice up there, so I won't give you anymore. I started weight lifting about a year ago and love the changes I'm seeing and feeling in my body. I was always strong in the leg from running and skiing, but a real upper body wienie. It's cool to feel strong.

    Hope all else is well with you!

    • Running was definitely for me, just not for my spine. I had a lot of back trouble (running was exacerbating my scoliosis) and my doctor recommended that I stop and switch to swimming.

      I miss you! Are you coming to WFC?

      • I miss you too! Spring has been WAY busy, so I haven't been keeping up with you all on Twitter. I hope to come to WFC, but didn't get a membership. I guess I should at least put myself on the waiting list. I really wanted to go to WorldCon in Reno, but a family wedding might foil my plans, there. I'll definitely let you know. In the meantime, come to Flagstaff!! I'm taking most of the first week of April off to write. Come on over! Job, schmob!

By Jenn Reese
Jenn Reese Writer, Artist, Geek

Newsletter Signup