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5 Things I Learned Working Out at the Gym This Fall

After a workout, Ottawa, November 2017

You’d be surprised how fit people are in Ottawa. Despite the European stereotype of North Americans as overweight, burger-eating, SUV drivers, you’ll probably find more fitness enthusiasts on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, Canada isn’t a mecca for the cult of the beach-ready body. Rather, exercising is considered a requirement of responsible adulthood, much like flossing, eating your food guide serving of veggies and getting enough sleep.

In Ottawa, running seems to be the most popular activity, probably followed by yoga judging by the number of studios around. Then come a long list of membership-based fitness centres, ranging from barebones gyms with cardio and strength equipment to huge facilities with pools, classes and personal trainers. Goodlife Fitness, Movati, Planet Fitness, Fit4Less, the YMCA, community centres, Anytime Fitness all compete for members.

I joined the YMCA when I first came to Canada. It didn’t take me long to realize I hated working out on machines and that it wasn’t fun to stay at the YMCA. I cancelled my membership and focused on other cool aspects of life in Canada, like Tim Hortons cookies. Seven years later, I signed up for hot yoga classes and discovered I enjoyed my biweekly practice. Eventually, several of my co-workers joined me, which was both fun and wonderfully awkward because I saw tattoos in places I wouldn’t have suspected. I was 35 weeks pregnant when I did my last downward dog and I think yoga did help when I pushed Mark out of me a few days later.

When we came back from France in late August, I decided to join a gym again. Not the YMCA, not my former yoga studio, but a brand-new facility, a twenty-minute walk from home. This is what I learned in three and a half months.

Find the right gym, the right price, the right schedule and the right vibe

Ottawa is a morning city but I’m not a morning person—I’m not taking a boot camp class at 6 a.m. I don’t want a personal trainer. I hate gyms that only disclose membership fees after you take the tour, give out all your info and listen to a pushy sales pitch. I’m sure that location across the city is great but realistically, I’m not going to stick to an exercise routine if the gym a forty-minute drive from home.

There are many options and business models, find one that fits your needs. Ask around for recommendations and take reviews with a grain of salt—between corporate shills and disgruntled ex-members, you’ll hear praise and horror stories.

Moral of the story… pick a location close to work/home and make sure classes that fit your schedule. Make going to the gym convenient and fun.

You may come for something and end up somewhere else  

I had left the fitness world in a savasana and I stepped back into it in downward dog. But I didn’t like yoga as much as I remembered. The group was a bit cliquey, the instructor not engaging enough. I was looking for a workout, not a lifestyle. So, I tried other classes. Zumba was a disaster, or rather a reminder that I have no coordination between my arms and legs. Spinning was cool but I hated the dance/techno music mix. Yogalate was slow torture.

At the end of the first week, I ended up in a power barbell class, not quite sure what a barbell was. You should have seen the look on my face when I was instructed to set up my bench and load my weights! Thirty minutes later, I was sweating and I was having fun. I had never worked with weights before but I found it relaxing and rewarding. After this experience, I started looking beyond familiar workouts. I love “boot camp circuit” type of classes, interval training where you move from station to station and alternate between cardio and strength exercises for a full-body workout.

Moral of the story… try something new. You might like it.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses

If you observe a group of people working out, you’ll notice that a few can lift weights effortlessly while others have no issue with core exercise or cardio—but I have yet to see anyone able to go through every step smoothly.

It’s interesting to find your strengths and your weakness. Obviously, you’ll want to challenge yourself but it’s also comforting to realize you have strong legs, good balance, flexibility, etc.

Moral of the story… no one is completely out of shape. You’re probably stronger than you think.

No matter who you are, you will fit in

You’ll find at the gym the same people you’ve just passed in the street. Old, young, men, women, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, thin, fat, fit, disabled… Note that many gyms have women’s only studios and that it’s perfectly fine wear modest workout clothes and a hijab or turban!

At the beginning of each new class, I went to see the instructor: “I’m new and I have no idea what I’m doing,” I admitted. The feeling didn’t last long. After a couple of classes, I learned the lingo and most of the exercises.

Don’t forget that you can be fit at any size. Gym members aren’t a bunch of super-slim, super-attractive people, just regular folks.

Moral of the story… most people are way too busy focusing on their own workout to pay attention to you.

Positive changes and results come surprisingly fast

I can’t claim I lost weight but I noticed new muscles where I didn’t know I had muscles. I’m less tense. Completing a workout is rewarding. I know how to stretch properly. I feel more balanced working out parts of my body I neglect—I walk a lot, but I don’t spontaneously do crunches or pushups…

Exercising is also good for my mental health. I work alone, so I enjoy joining a group of people in a non-competitive environment and being told what to do for an hour. It’s a complete break from the rest of the day when I have to make decisions and be in charge.

Moral of the story… absolutely no one regrets having a toner, leaner body—you have nothing to lose.

So if you were brainstorming your New Year’s resolutions, here is my advice—do give the gym a try!

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