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My gym offered the charm of a second-rate bomb shelter. I was hooked

A gym’s culture – that ethereal vibe that permeates the space, the one that hits you the second you walk through the door – can make or break the training experience.

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I joined my first gym some time between the end of high school and the beginning of college. It was a large, rundown place inside an old auto body shop on the outskirts of town, near both a nuclear power plant and a popular strip club. The clientele was made up mostly of rugged blue-collar types from the surrounding factories. You know those fancy, high-end health clubs that are stocked with shiny machines and every member gets a eucalyptus-scented towel and cucumber-infused water streams from all the fountains and the staff are all tanned and smiling like Stepford robots? This was not one of those places.

The equipment at this gym was all second-hand and mismatched. The leather padding on the benches was usually torn and frayed. Repairs were made with duct tape. As far as I can remember, only one person worked there – the owner, a short and surly muscle-bound man who spent much of his time berating members for breaking house rules and creating crass handwritten signs reminding members of said rules. There were no group fitness classes, no dedicated stretching areas, no juice bars. This was a place for lifting weights, and to that end it was perfect. Every time I stepped foot on the training-room floor (tattered copy of Men's Health in hand – oh, for those days before Internet domination) I felt ready to exorcise my teenage angst.

Of course, not everyone enjoys training in a gym that offers all the charm of a second-rate bomb shelter. There are those who may be put off by the presence of muscle-bound dudes slamming loaded barbells onto cracked concrete floors, or those who demand a few frills with their monthly membership (pass the cucumber water). A gym's culture – that ethereal vibe that permeates the space, the one that hits you the second you walk through the door – can make or break the training experience, especially for newbies and anyone who doesn't look like a fitness model.

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Louise Green knows this from first-hand experience. In her new book, Big Fit Girl, published this month, the B.C.-based personal trainer and self-described plus-sized athlete recounts her journey from a sedentary lifestyle that revolved around alcohol, cigarettes and fast food to completing half-marathons and triathlons. The road wasn't easy. Diets failed, gym memberships went unused. To Green, everything about fitness seemed to cater to the young, thin and beautiful.

"I fantasized about being the slim, athletic woman in the fitness-store windows," she writes. "I signed on the dotted line for a gym membership many times. I paid the fee every month but found gym culture intimidating and never went."

Then she met a running coach who actually looked like her and everything changed. Having a mentor who understood her struggle, someone who knew fitness and athleticism don't have to be a function of size, made all the difference. It's an inspiring story, one that perfectly illustrates the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people when working toward a goal.

Most of my personal-training clients are thirtysomethings who haven't exercised since grade-school gym class. Whenever I ask what's prevented them from being more active over the years, their response is typically a variation on "I don't like gyms." Fair enough, but dig deeper and we discover it's not gyms they don't like, it's the way they feel when they're at the gym. That's what happens when you train at a place with a crappy culture – you feel defeated, uninspired, alone. No amount of self-motivation can overcome the feeling of not fitting in.

Defining a gym's culture can be tricky, but a good place to start is with the people who work there. Do their attitudes match your own? Do they appear to genuinely care about helping people improve their health and fitness? Do the trainers engage with their clients or are they simply going through the motions? And don't forget the folks doing all the sweating. Do you recognize yourself among the spandexed masses? Does it look like they're enjoying themselves? (Yes, you can have a good time at the gym!) All of these factors matter; when you feel the right cultural connection, it's like a welcoming hug from an old friend. When it's the wrong connection, it's like having the door slammed in your face.

Thankfully, these days we're not exactly starved for choice when it comes to finding the right gym. There are seniors gyms, women-only gyms and queer-friendly gyms; CrossFit gyms, parkour gyms and powerlifting gyms; gyms that play music and gyms that don't, gyms that have full-service spas on-site and gyms that don't even have showers.

Hell, who says you need a gym anyway? Fitness culture can happen anywhere, from boot camps in the park to outdoor running clubs. All it takes is the right mix of people. The point is, for every demographic served, for every style of training, for every level of luxury offered, there is an accompanying culture that defines the experience.

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Glitzy health-club marketing ploys are usually just that – a con designed to separate you from your money. Don't be fooled. The key to long-term health and fitness is joyful and consistent action, which isn't going to happen if you can't stand the environment. Take the time to find your tribe and everything else will fall into place.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

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