How to join a gym for walking, plus basic beginner etiquette

Joining a gym can give you access to a variety of cardio and fitness equipment that you can use rain or shine. It might seem a bit scary at first, but most gyms will let you look around and maybe even try the equipment for a session. You can use treadmills and other equipment to get in a walking workout, while doing some light strength training as well. Even if you only plan to walk and nothing else, having access to a gym gives you a go-to walking location to make sure you always have a way to hit your step goal.

With such a huge variety of gyms and fitness centers, it may be hard to know what to look for. This guide will help you learn what to look for when looking into gyms, what you can expect when you arrive there, and some basic etiquette tips so that you feel like a pro during your first gym session.

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How to Choose the Right Gym

Personal trainer with active gym in backgrond
wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

If you’ve never stepped foot in a gym, you might not know where to start when looking for one. With the explosion of gyms and fitness options, there are more choices than ever. For a beginner, most friendly and welcoming gyms will work fine. Here are some things to look for when choosing a gym:

  • Location: Choosing a gym that you can actually get to on a regular basis is usually the most important factor. Find a location that works with your schedule (morning, lunch break, or night).
  • Hours: Make sure the gym is open when you’re most likely to visit. This is more important for very early morning or late night walkers.
  • Facilities: If you plan to work out before work or during lunchtime, you may want a gym with a shower and towels provided. Likewise, if you love swimming or certain specific equipment make sure you find a gym where you can do that.
  • Contracts: While the price is important, the specific terms may be more important. Some gyms require long-term contracts that can be difficult to break. If you’re not sure about joining a gym, paying month-to-month or even on a per-session basis may be better – at least to start.
  • Staff: Do the staff seem friendly and professional, or disinterested or intimidating? Pushy sales staff can also be a red flag that management is not looking out for their clients. If you don’t feel comfortable signing up right away – don’t! Chance are, any “today only” offer will still be available tomorrow if you decide to come back.
  • Fitness Classes: Many gyms offer fitness classes throughout the day. You can change up your workout and challenge yourself through Zumba, pilates, boxing, yoga, and other cardio classes. If classes are available, check the schedule and see if any of them fit into your free time.
  • 24 Hour Gyms: If you’re a serious night owl or you work irregular shifts, you may want to look into a gym that’s open 24 hours a day. Most people don’t get use out of the ability to work out at 3AM, but depending on your work this could be a safer way to exercise at odd hours.
  • Beginner Gyms: Those that are new to fitness may not want all the bells and whistles that come with some of the upscale gyms. Maybe classes are not your thing, and all you want is a treadmill to walk on and some weights to get you stronger. Look for gyms that advertise to fitness newcomers or people of all fitness levels These are usually tailored to be a no-judgment zone where you can workout to your leisure and at your pace.
  • Hardcore Gyms: If you’re a fitness walker, you probably won’t feel comfortable in a hardcore weight lifting gym. You certainly can join one and you’ll be just fine, but you’ll probably feel more comfortable in a gym that caters to a variety of fitness levels and fitness goals.

Once you figure out which gym is best suited for you, head over to their website or give them a call, many gyms offer free gym sessions for first-timers, which is excellent when you are trying to figure out what’s the best option for you.

Why Join a Gym (If You’re Not Into Lifting Weights)

Middle aged woman walking on treadmill
gpointstudio / Shutterstock

Even if you’re planning on lifting weights, you can use a gym membership to get healthy in other ways. Even small gyms give you access to a treadmill, which will allow you to get your steps in any weather. Treadmills allow you to adjust your walking speed whenever you want, and usually set an incline to burn additional calories during your walk. You can’t walk on an incline for your entire walk when walking outside, but on a treadmill, you can.

You’ll usually also get access to other types of cardio equipment that can help you exercise as well. Exercise bikes can be another fun way to burn calories. Stair climbers give you a stair walking workout, which may be the most intense calorie-burning workout you can do. Varieties of elliptical machines can give you a lower-impact, fuller body workout. Larger gyms may have access to a pool or other equipment too.

You can also start a beginner strength workout, which is great for almost anyone to add into their workout mix. You don’t have to lift heavy weights – you can use the space to do bodyweight workouts or use basic machines to perform the movements you want.

Basic Gym Set-Up – What to Expect

Gym layout with cardio equipment blurred
Paul Biryukov / Shutterstock

While every gym is different, you’ll see a similar setup in most gyms. Larger gyms may have more equipment, and specialty gyms may favor more weights or more cardio options.

  • Check-in Station/Front Desk: The first thing you’ll probably see is the front desk where you show your card or ID and check-in. Many gyms have a snack bar or refreshment stand where you can grab a sports drink or an energy bar. If you’re coming for the first time, don’t be nervous. The front desk person will find a trainer or sales rep to show you around.
  • Cardio Area: Almost all gyms have at least some cardio equipment, including treadmills, stair masters, ellipticals, bikes, and rowing machines. You will usually be able to use any of the equipment as long as it’s not occupied by someone else. Depending on the gym, it may be hard to find an open treadmill at peak times. You should visit the gym around the time you usually plan to work out to see how crowded it can get.
  • Weight Area/Weight Room: Whether it’s an open concept gym or a specific room, most gyms will have a weight area full of a variety of bars and weights for people to lift. This area will include varying weights of dumbbells, kettlebells, and other weight training equipment. Free weights can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, so if you’re new it’s best to ask a trainer before lifting something heavy on your own.
  • Class areas/Special rooms: Specialty classes usually have their own room. This could be a room full of stationary bikes for spin classes, a yoga room for yoga classes, or a multifunction room for all types of aerobics classes. These are sometimes locked when not in use, but often open for you to use on your own. You will be able to find out times and schedules by talking to the front desk or checking on the company’s website.
  • Locker Room: Most gyms will have a locker room available for you to change in and store your gear while you work out. Most larger gyms will also have showers for your convenience. Check beforehand to see what items they provide and what you need to bring yourself. Some gyms provide their own locks, while for others you need to bring your own. Fancier gyms may provide their own towels and toiletries too.
  • Pool Area: If swimming is your thing, then gyms with a pool will be the perfect set-up. Not only will you be able to get a quick walking workout in on the treadmill, but you will also be able to finish off with a cool-down swim afterward. Note that many gym pools are set up as lap pools for fitness swimming rather than relaxing.

Gym Etiquette – What to Do on Your First Visit

Coach showing woman how to run on treadmill
Pavel Vinnik / Shutterstock

Visiting a gym for the first time can be scary – even if you’re just there to take a look. Don’t worry! Every person at the gym, from the staff to the people working out, has been there at one time or another. Most gyms have a friendly, welcoming environment to new members or new customers. If you’re friendy and courteous, you should be fine!

There are a few common gym etiquette tips that can help you feel more like a gym pro than a new gym member. For the most part, if you’re friendly and ask about things you’re not sure of then you should be just fine. These etiquette tips will help you have a more comfortable and fun experience.

  1. Don’t Judge People (or Yourself!): Almost everyone at the gym will be so focused on their own workout that they won’t even realize what you’re doing. Don’t worry about how fast you’re walking, what exercises you’re doing (if any), or how you look. You will also quickly realize that there is no right or wrong way to a gym session; every person has their techniques, favorite workouts, and training methods.
  2. If You’re Not Sure, Ask!: Most gyms have someone on staff who can answer basic questions. If you’re not sure what a piece of equipment is, or how a gym policy works just ask! Do be aware that trainers may be working with other clients, so try to find someone who looks like they’re free before asking. Also note that while a question or two may be ok, if you need extensive help with your workout you should probably book a personal training session.
  3. Share the Equipment: Once you’re done with a treadmill or other piece of equipment, move off of it so that someone else can use it. If the gym isn’t busy and there are plenty of other treadmills, you can feel free to rest there. Many gyms may only have 1 or 2 of certain specialized pieces of equipment. Feel free to use them, but free them up for others if you need to take an extended rest.
  4. Wipe Your Sweat: This is just common courtesy, but also an important gym etiquette tip – wipe up your sweat! Most gyms have either wipes or small towels that you can use to wipe the equipment after you’re done. Whether it is a machine or a mat, make sure you wipe it so that it’s clean for the next person. It’s often a good idea to give a piece of equipment a quick wipe before you use it just in case. For treadmills, you don’t usually have to wipe the floor but if you did sweat all over the parts that people may touch it’s common courtesy to quickly wipe those areas.
  5. Follow Gym Rules: Some gyms have specific rules that they would like members to follow. These rules ensure that the area is accessible for all; everyone feels comfortable and they help keep you safe. There may be a certain dress code, or time limits on cardio equipment during peak hours. These rules are usually posted, but it’s always good to ask if there are any rules you need to know about.
  6. Don’t Be Late for Classes: If you do join a set class, whether it’s a personal training session or a group fitness class, make sure to get there 5-10 minutes early. Walking in late is disruptive to the trainers and can also be bothersome to the other participants in the class. Some gyms will not allow members to arrive late, so it’s best to get there early so you can prep ahead of time.
  7. Put Away Your Equipment: If you use any mats, weights, or other gear make sure to put them back where you found it when you’re done. If you move around or adjust some weight machines, you may want to put those back to the original settings as well. Leaving weights or mats around can cause people to trip, or simply not be able to find the gear they want.

Final Thoughts:

Gyms can be a fantastic asset in your fitness walking journey.  Not only can they provide you with all the equipment you need to get in a great walking workout, but over the years, the standard gym model has been revamped to encompass many gym options, including small gyms and gyms tailored to fit your specific needs. These options are great for those beginners that don’t know where to start at the gym or may not feel as comfortable hitting up a large chain gym. Finding a gym that feels comfortable to you may be just what you need to get your steps.

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The best gyms for your wallet. (2019). By Hanna Horvath. Policy Genius

Dos and Don’ts at the Gym. (ND). The Emily Post Institute. 

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