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What to Do Your First Day at the Gym

Ian started working out at age 40 and has since learned a lot about motivation, success, and developing a fitness routine.

How to start exercising again at the gym.

How to start exercising again at the gym.

First Gym Visit: Where to Start

Congratulations! You're starting a workout routine. You're exactly where I was: I'd just turned 40 and knew I needed to take care of myself but wasn't sure how to start.

Starting to work out when you're over 40 is much different from starting to work out when you're in your early 20s. If you haven't been working out regularly until this point, you probably have some stiffness in your body, the beginnings of some minor aches and pains, and you may even have been diagnosed with health concerns such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

In this article, we'll look at what to expect on your first visit, and how to start off in a way that gives you maximum benefit without hurting yourself.

Know Your Way Around

The whole idea of this article (and my other articles) is to get you to a place where you'll keep up with your workout routine. That starts on day 1. You'll feel much more comfortable and ready to get started if you know where you're going before you get there.

The easiest way, of course, is to ask someone who works there. Go in to sign up on a day when you're not planning to work out and ask for a tour. Familiarize yourself with the layout so you know where the treadmills are, where the weight benches are, and so on.

Locker Rooms

While you're there, find the locker rooms. Find out where you can put your gear while you're working out—clean clothes, wallet, and so on. You'll want to ask about locks—does the gym provide locks for lockers or can you bring one?


Ask about towels. Most gyms will provide a towel for you to use after your post-workout shower, but some don't. Again, the more you know before you go in for your first workout, the more comfortable and confident you'll feel.

Water Bottle Filling Stations

Find out where you can refill your water bottle. It's important to keep hydrating while you're exercising, and you want to know where to get fresh water both before and during your workout.

Get acquainted with the locker rooms.

Get acquainted with the locker rooms.

Treadmills, Ellipticals, and Bikes: How Do You Turn Them On?

While you're being shown around, if you haven't used a cardio machine recently you should ask someone to show you how they work. Modern gym equipment can be super sophisticated with all kinds of special programs, and the first time you step on one it might seem a bit daunting.

So go ahead and ask the gym staff to show you how they work. If you know you are prone to knee joint pain, you should probably start on the elliptical or the stationary bike. Even if you don't run, the treadmill will still put more pressure on your knees.

Check the Entertainment

Gyms usually have plenty of television screens dotted around the place, especially in front of the treadmills and ellipticals. (They know it can get boring!) Find out how you can change the channels, and ask how to hook up your headphones or earbuds.

Start simple on the treadmill.

Start simple on the treadmill.

Start Simple

When you're ready to do your first workout, keep it simple. If you choose to go on the treadmill, start with a manual program. Keep the treadmill flat (no inclines until you're used to how the machine feels), and start at a moderate pace.

Starting Pace on the Treadmill

What's a good starting pace? Unfortunately, the real answer is "it depends." There are a lot of variables that go into what's going to be a comfortable pace for you, including:

  • Height and length of your legs
  • Weight
  • Starting level of fitness

Start slow. Remember, you're not competing with anyone, and nobody is going to care how fast or slow you're going. You can be almost completely anonymous in the gym!

Many cardio machines have heart rate monitors. If yours does, make sure to use it and know what is a good target heart rate. According to the Mayo Clinic, you can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For a 40-year-old, that works out to 180. But when you're starting out, aim for no more than 50% to 70% of that maximum (again, for a 40-year-old, that's 90 to 126). If you're going higher than that, reduce the rate and make sure your heart rate starts to come down to a safe level after a few seconds.

A moderate walking pace is between three and four miles an hour. Start at three and try it out for a few minutes. If you are feeling puffed and strained, slow it down; if you feel it's far too easy, try increasing the pace slightly.

Max HR = 220 - Your Age

40 years old - maximum heart rate = 180

45 years old - maximum heart rate = 175

50 years old - maximum heart rate = 170

55 years old - maximum heart rate = 165

Don't Push Yourself at First

As in my other articles, I'll repeat the most important point: always check with a doctor first.

Even after checking with a doctor, you can still get caught up in the enthusiasm and push yourself more than you should. If your body's hurting, it's telling you to stop. Listen to what your body is saying. You're doing this to keep yourself fit as you get into middle age, and hurting yourself on the first day isn't going to help.

Aim for a first workout of 30 minutes, but if you can't make it, then slow down or stop. It doesn't matter how long or how fast you go at first; what matters is you've started, and that you keep coming back.

Be especially aware of pains or tightness in your chest. Stop as soon as you notice any sign of such a pain. This is especially critical if the pain spreads beyond your chest to your shoulders, arms, neck, or jaw. Seek immediate medical attention and make sure it's not a heart attack.

Get Into a Routine

Getting started is a great accomplishment, and a big step towards promoting a more enjoyable future. Set a routine that works for you, keep your mind on your motivation, and don't stop!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.