With the first days of warm weather, we begin shedding layers of clothing and searching through closets and drawers for warmer-weather clothes, one of the most dreaded annual rituals because it also means exposing flesh that has been safely out of sight in sweats and jeans for the past six months.

It’s the time of year when neighborhood health clubs and gyms see another batch of fresh recruits, eager to step, stomp, pedal and push their way into a smaller size. But starting and staying are two different things, say local health club and gym owners and trainers, who see the return to the gym as regularly as the seasons, only to lose many at the first sore muscle or lazy morning.

“People looking for a place to work out should look for an atmosphere that is conducive to coming in on a regular basis – and a place that says they will have fun,” says Robert Creel, owner of White Rock Athletic Club.

Neighborhood resident Diane Kitzman, first violinist with the Dallas Symphony, started working out 10 years ago, and today does weight training and cardiovascular at Lakewood Gym at Mockingbird and Abrams.

“As a musician, I never got out of the practice room, and I wanted to try something physical,” she says. After five years of aerobics, Kitzman wanted a new challenge and began lifting weights under the guidance of a personal trainer.

“I didn’t know anything about weights and wanted to be very careful that I didn’t injure myself,” she says.

Since beginning with weights, she has noticed a lessening of the tendonitis that is an occupational hazard for violinists.

A personal trainer provides expertise, guidance and motivation, and for those who have trouble getting to the gym can mean an extra incentive since someone is waiting who has been paid – from $30-50 an hour depending on experience and the number of sessions purchased.

Kitzman works with trainer Michele Hearrean, a trainer for 11 years and an award-winning bodybuilder.

“I have had a couple of trainers, and Michele is a great motivator, and I find her very knowledgeable. She actually came and watched me play a concert to see the position of my body and the next day began addressing exercises so I wouldn’t injure myself. She is very intuitive.”

Kitzman likes the small, neighborhood feel of Lakewood Gym, which provides weights and cardiovascular machines.

“Everyone knows everyone, and it’s never crowded when I work out.”

For those who want to begin working with weight machines, navigating the mechanics, positions, required weights and repetitions is confusing and can be daunting.

“My clients want someone to be there waiting for them who can direct and guide them. People new to the gym can be overwhelmed by the crowds and machines. But once they have paid a trainer to be there with them, they will have the personal motivation,” Hearrean says.

White Rock Athletic Club, Lakewood Gym and the new Lake Highlands Family YMCA on Greenville all have fitness personnel who will do basic instruction on the machines. They also provide phone numbers for personal trainers who are independent contractors, but Hearrean says it’s important to talk to the trainers, hear their philosophy and watch them interact with clients before choosing one.

“A good trainer will, first of all, be certified and should have a physiology of exercise degree. They should provide a consultation that would include listening to your goals and setting a plan. There should be a relationship. And they should have some flexibility with your schedule.”

Hearrean says weight training can build and develop muscle that will help burn fat more efficiently than just doing cardio workouts – and that those who are afraid of becoming muscle bound won’t unless they want to. Adding nutrition is the third component that can result in a healthier lifestyle and form, she says.

“You have to do cardiovascular, pump weights and do the diet. If you have all three going six days a week, you will transform. When people commit and not deviate, they will see results sooner, and that will inspire and make them commit.”

At the new Lake Highlands Family YMCA, those who aren’t inclined to hire a personal trainer can have a machine do some of the work. The Y’s workout machines are connected to Fitlinxx, a computer program that keeps tabs on your personal training regimen. A central computer tells you which machines you need to work, the weight needed, the chair setting and how many repetitions. Each machine then reiterates the information on a small, attached screen.

The treadmills and bikes have small, personal displays for television and a CD/cassette player that can be used with headphones.

The Y houses an indoor pool, gym and aerobics room, all of which surround a large area filled with equipment. At 6:30 p.m. the building is buzzing, with nearly every machine filled. Executive Director Nora Belcher says that the two Y fitness instructors who roam the floor can assist with acclimating and set up of the machines.

“Lots of our members crosstrain, which means they can do another exercise if a particular machine is not available. They swim, do aerobics or walk,” Belcher says.”

Julia Aleander, 75, began working out at the Y last year and has seen her diabetes controlled with daily activity: “I knew what I needed to do, but it helps to come here to do it. I need to be around people.”

The club has a definite family feel with nursery care for smaller children and a range of activities for all ages.

Deciding to work out should be a lifetime commitment, so shop around for the right feel, Kitzman says. If you’re considering a club or gym, visit during the time of day you’ll be working out. Are their machines in good repair and available, or are there waiting lines? Do you like the ambiance? Is the staff friendly, helpful? Does the space feel right? Do you need childcare or classes for children so you can work out? The clubs offer packages and pricing for families, and prices start at $29 a month for an individual with special membership costs offered periodically.

Last but not least, like the grocery store, church or community meetings, working out at a nearby gym gives you another chance to run into your neighbors, united for a common cause.

In fact, the Lake Highlands Y atmosphere is almost collegial. People changing machines stop to exchange a few laughs with new friends, while others talk across sweaty bodies to update each other on lives.

“It’s like the gym has become the old main street,” says one participant. “We come for the conversation, and because it’s fun.”