Cynthia Mutch has seen it before.
The membership and marketing director for the Frank P. Phillips YMCA in Columbus has seen new members struggle to fit in. Instead of joining an exercise class or orienting themselves with the gym’s weight machines, they’ll walk on the treadmill alone.
Eventually, they stop coming.
“We always hate that, but it does happen,” Mutch said.
It’s what she, the YMCA and gyms around the Golden Triangle are aiming to avoid. Through training programs, group classes, posted instructions and more, they hope to take away the intimidation many first-time gymgoers experience.
“There still is that apprehension and self-awareness and self-consciousness that is very normal to people who are just first coming in the gym,” said Meridith Nuckolls, fitness coordinator at Mississippi State University’s Sanderson Center.
In roughly 15 years as a personal trainer, Nuckolls can be sure. She said clients’ No. 1 concern was how to use the equipment; many felt like other gymgoers were watching them, although Nuckolls said that is rarely the case.
It’s why Sanderson director Patrik Nordin has done plenty to encourage newcomers. The facility now includes several open, multifunction spaces to allow those working out to have plenty of room around them and perform a variety of exercises.
Created in 2016, personal training studios inside the center — with frosted glass on the outside to prevent others from seeing in — allow a secluded space for one-on-one instruction.
“He wants it to be a place that is for everyone and not just kind of like your gym jocks,” Nuckolls said of Nordin. “I think we’ve done a really good job of utilizing the space that we have.”
Mutch touted the YMCA’s coffee bar and front sitting area as places for members to congregate. Before and after fitness classes at the Y, she said, those tables are typically packed with plenty of conversation going on.
Mutch and Nuckolls both said those classes are among the best ways for newcomers to become engaged with a gym. The Sanderson’s Bulldog X classes include strength, cardio, yoga, dance and more, while the Y offers several of the same programs plus water classes and programs like Silver Sneakers for active seniors.
Nuckolls said group fitness classes have the highest adherence rates thanks to social connections that develop between members.
“If someone doesn’t see you at the class three times, they may reach out and ask, ‘How have you been?’” she said. “Having that accountability is a great way for people to start.”
The Sanderson also offers virtual personal training sessions via FaceTime, Zoom or Webex. Those who sign up are paired with a trainer and can participate in as many 30-minute sessions per week as needed. They will also receive “homework” in the form of workouts to complete on their own time.
It’s “a really good tool to help people feel comfortable before they’re coming into this space,” Nuckolls said.
The Sanderson has others. Many equipment machines include diagrams showing users how to operate them; some have QR codes that link to how-to videos. Other QR codes, posted on the walls, link to beginner workouts.
Over in Columbus, the YMCA has its own tools. Members can make an appointment to use the Y’s InBody body composition analyzer, which determines what proportion of one’s weight is composed of body fat, lean muscle mass and water.
According to InBody’s website, the cheapest model costs more than $6,000.
“We’re very blessed to have one here,” Mutch said.
But equipment like the body composition analyzer and many exercise machines isn’t always intuitive. Nuckolls pointed out “quick start” buttons on cardio machines that allow newcomers to get moving quickly.
At the YMCA, a personal trainer will meet with new members for an orientation, taking them through each piece of equipment and showing them how to use it safely and effectively “so they don’t have to learn by watching and can get some professional instruction,” Mutch said.
It’s just one of the ways the YMCA — and gyms around the area — can cater to new members. That’s often a difficult task, but for those who need help adjusting, it’s a vital one.
“Getting plugged in and starting to feel like you belong here — like ‘this is my place’ — that’s important,” Mutch said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.