The Arthritis Newsletter

Spring 2014

I've Never Been to a Gym, How Do I Get Started?

By Joyce Ma


Losing a lot of strength in my hip and shoulder muscles due to polymyositis greatly impacted my life. It limited my movement and my independence. My physiotherapist (PT) had been after me to do my exercises at home to rebuild these crucial muscles and to build muscle support in other joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis. My problem was NO motivation. I could not stick to a regular exercise routine at home as there were too many distractions. My PT suggested that I try exercising at the gym, and I reluctantly agreed.


As a woman in my early 40s who’d never been to the gym, the thought was quite daunting. I was a little bit overweight and out of shape and everyone inside the gym looked very buff to me. The thought of everyone watching me as I tried to lift 5lbs, or fall flat on my face on the treadmill made me blush with embarrassment, but I told myself to “just do it”.


So one day I sat down in front of my calendar and chose which two days of the week were open and convenient. Looking back a couple of months, Tuesdays and Thursdays were always open, so I chose those days. Since I’m a late riser, I decided on 11a.m.


Then I called three different Community Centres and made an appointment with a person from the gym staff to show me what kind of aerobic machines and other equipment they had in their gym. During the viewing, I looked around and got a feel for who was using the gym at 11a.m. and how crowded the place was. I brought a list of questions/concerns that were important to me such as:


  • Is there a staff at all times that monitor the gym facilities to make sure that rules and regulations are followed?
  • Are the staff available at all times to show me how to use the equipment? This is very important to me because every exercise machine is slightly different from the other.
  • Is the equipment new and well maintained? Does the staff check them regularly?
  • Is hygiene strictly enforced?
  • Are shower rooms, washrooms and locker rooms clean and safe? Are they monitored by female staff?
  • Is there free parking available?


In the end I decided to pick the Community Centre that met all my requirements including the proximity to the Mall that I frequented for other conveniences. There is a drop-in gym fee of $5.15 for an adult with no time limit and staff is available to give FREE advice on exercises needed for specific problems/concerns.

My PT made me a list of exercises (with verbal and written instructions) for specific muscles and a short note for the personal trainer /gym staff to explain my condition and which muscles need some focused exercise. I took this note with me when I went for my first appointment and shared it with the gym staff/personal trainer. He then took the time to show me which pieces of equipment would be best to use and how to use them properly.


My first week was done with great caution. I wore comfortable gym clothes, proper gym shoes, and gym gloves for grip and to prevent callouses. I took a hand towel for sweat and a bottle of water. I started exercising for 30 minutes, which included warm up on the stationary bike for 5 min., followed by 5 min. of stretching, followed by 15 min. of exercises involving free weights, rowing machine, leg press, lateral pull down, hamstring curl, then 5 min. of stretching to end. Because I have RA as well, I stopped at the slight sign of pain or discomfort. I started with lightweights and just a few repetitions so that I didn’t aggravate my joints or end up with sore muscles.


My concern about others watching me make a mistake was unfounded. Since the gym staff made sure that I knew what I was doing, I built up confidence after a few visits. I also found that 11a.m. was a perfect time, it’s slower before the noon rush hour.


Every two to three months, my PT would assess my progress and we would discuss where I could increase my exercises. My PT guided me along the way and also provided treatment when needed. The gym staff had been very helpful and eager to assist when needed.  Eventually, 12 yrs. later, I’ve expanded into different aerobic machines, increased the repetitions, moved to heavier free weights and increased my gym time to two hours, three times a week with great success. I feel much stronger physically and mentally. I have less fatigue and less clinical depression. I’m lighter, I lost 25lbs. and happier that I gained back my independence and self-confidence.


What I like about this is that I’m doing my exercises at my own pace and with my own music. I can personalize my exercises, targeting the specific areas that needed strengthening and I’m doing it on my own time schedule. I can tweak my exercises based on how I feel. I keep my gym schedule like an appointment and work around it. Watching others working up a sweat is a good motivator for me. It challenges me to do the same. I’m also lucky that there were few regulars that came at the same time and we became gym buddies. In the end, I’m glad I summoned the courage to start.


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