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Make your health club work for you.

According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), 20 million Americans currently belong to a health club. However, this figure doesn't tell the whole story. Adherence rate, or the number of people who maintain a long-term exercise program, is not considered in that statistic. Within the first six months of commencing a regular exercise regimen, IHRSA reports that 50% of these people will stop exercising altogether.

Unfortunately, the fact you belong to a health club doesn't guarantee you'll automatically get in shape. You have to show up regularly and actually engage in physical activity to benefit from a health club membership.

The following are some methods to help you get the most out of your health club membership:

1) Be consistent in your exercise program. Health clubs count on the fact the majority of their clientele will be short term, such as those who join on January 2, inspired by New Year's resolutions. They throw themselves fervently into self-induced episodes of sweat and pain every day for a week, and then never show their faces inside the gym again. If you are initiating a regular exercise schedule, learn from their mistakes and don't exceed your limitations. Instead, aim to participate in an individualized cardiovascular and strength-training program at least three times a week. Don't avoid the gym for weeks or months at a time because, for instance, your boyfriend dumped you, causing you to seek solace at your neighborhood bakery. Exercise will make you feel better about yourself, and may even help you recover from such disappointments more quickly.

2) Take a deep breath and succumb to the required fitness screening. It usually consists of a series of simple manual tests designed to assess your overall flexibility, muscle strength and endurance, cardiovascular fitness and total body fat percentage. Although you may not want to know how fit you may or may not be, it's important to get screened so you can track your progress.

3) Studies show if you do the same aerobic exercise often enough, your body gets acclimated to it and begins conserving energy while engaged in that particular activity. This means you burn less calories and won't build muscle. It's best to rotate your cardiovascular workout routines. One day, ride the stationary bicycle. Another day use the stair climber, walk on the treadmill, use the rowing machine or take an aerobics class. Your body will be constantly challenged by the variety of activities.

4) Don't be afraid to lift weights. Many women avoid the weight room completely, erroneously believing that if they attempt weight training, they will bear an alarming resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, women simply don't possess the physiological composition to build massive amounts of muscle-not without steroids. Rather than bulking you up, working out with weights can be a highly effective tool in toning, tightening and shaping all your major muscle groups. Numerous studies have shown a combination of strength training and cardiovascular exercise decreases body fat more efficiently that cardiovascular exercise alone. Even while at rest, muscle tissue requires more energy than fat tissue. The more muscle tissue you have, the faster your body will burn calories. Consequently, you'll be able to eat more food without gaining weight. Most health clubs provide their members a complimentary weight equipment orientation. Take advantage of it.

5.) If possible, try to join a health club with a friend. Having a good workout partner, preferably someone who is at a comparable fitness level, can improve the prospects of a regular exercise program. A friendly face can help motivate you, boost you when your enthusiasm lags, check your form and compliment your successes. However, be sure that the time you allot for working out doesn't turn into a social engagement, in which you squeeze in the occasional half-hearted abdominal crunch between an entire hour of gossip.

6.) Set realistic goals. At the start of your program, take an honest look at your true abilities and set reasonable exercise goals accordingly, if you're a workout neophyte, then passionately vowing to do two consecutive hours on the stair climber at level 10 every day may be a recipe for failure, not to mention a heart attack. Aim for smaller, more manageable accomplishments. For example, allocate a minimum of 30 minutes to cardiovascular exercises three times a week at the appropriate intensity for your fitness level. Once you can comfortably perform the exercise objectives you initially set out to achieve, you can set tougher goals. Using this approach, you'll make steady progress while reducing your chances for injury and exercise burnout.

7.) Don't expect miracles. You're setting yourself up for disappointment if you walk into a health club with Roseanne's physique and expect to emerge as a stunt double for Cindy Crawford. Maintain reasonable expectations. If you're only five feet tall, chances are no one will ever refer to your gams as being "miles long," no matter how toned your legs eventually become. And if your family gene pool is replete with the DNA of robust childbearing-hipped women, you may never achieve Barbie's thighs. However, with consistent cardiovascular and strength exercise, you can attain the best body possible for you. Body parts that once jiggled will soon stay firmly in place, and well-toned muscles will emerge from previously doughy flesh. As you see your body improving, you will inevitably feel better abut yourself.

Rhonda Weinfeld is a freelance writer residing in North Bergen, New Jersey.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Weinfeld, Rhonda
Publication:American Fitness
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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