09/01/2012 01:21 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

The Best Place to Get Fit (Hint: It's Free)

It might surprise you. I certainly never would have guessed it.

The best place for free, data-driven, tested and proven fitness information, how-to tips, and a community to cheer you on is... Reddit.

This knowledge came to me as a direct result of my last post, "10 Steps to Getting Fit While Staying Healthy," which highlighted my successful summer training program with fitness coach Gem Yates.

After reading that post, an acquaintance -- whom I'd describe as more geeky than sporty -- reached out to me via Facebook. He sent me this surprising article about Reddit as an excellent source of fitness information by Dick Talens, the founder of Fitocracy.

My contact also wrote:

No one who knows me would think me a fitness guru, but I think I know more about how to achieve fitness than 99 percent of the population as a result of my work with /r/Fitness. I was, for about 18 months, a moderator on that "subreddit" of

The fitness subreddit is probably the fastest growing general fitness site on the web, with just over 200,000 subscribers, and a few thousand new ones added each week.

Personally, when I joined /r/Fitness, I could barely lift a 45-pound bar. In one year of going to the gym just twice a week, I was able to increase my back squat to 215 pounds -- which far exceeded my expectations. It was amazing!

I was intrigued. A few days ago, I interviewed this acquaintance and gleaned more new fitness and health information in a two-hour phone call with him than I have in two years of reading health blogs and news headlines.

My contact asked to be identified for the purposes of this article only by his Reddit username, menuitem. He explained, "It's like Fight Club. The first rule of Reddit is, you don't talk about Reddit. So I'm kind of breaking with 'reddiquette' here."

Awesome sauce.

How Reddit Works

First, a brief primer on Reddit, courtesy of menuitem. The social media network gives any registered user the opportunity to post questions or articles. Community members can vote these posts up or down (equivalent to a Facebook Like or hypothetical Dislike), and also discuss.

While your username makes you anonymous, it does persist (unlike on, say, 4chan). Therefore, people get to know you by your Reddit identity. You can earn Reddit "karma" by gaining upvotes on your posts and comments.

The /r/Fitness group is about overall fitness, meaning fat loss and muscle gain. But every sport also has a related board. For instance, there's a subreddit on weight loss, /r/LoseIt; two on weight lifting, /r/Weightlifting and /r/WeightRoom; there's /r/Running, and so on.

A Newbie Guide to /r/Fitness

So, let's say you're brand new to the fitness subreddit. How do you get started?

Most people, scolds menuitem, go about it all wrong. "They immediately post a question and start asking things like, 'How do I lose weight? How do I get ripped?'"

They don't notice the proviso at very top of the front page: "Before posting, READ THE FAQ"

According to menuitem, "This FAQ is AMAZING. Ninety percent of your questions about how to get fit and ripped are answered in it. So sit down and read it top to bottom. Don't just look for answers to your question. Read the whole thing because it will answer questions that you didn't even know you had. It'll take you 45 to 50 minutes, which may sound like a lot. But you're going to invest way more time than that in getting fit."

Don't Say "I Wanna Lose Weight"

"Now, most people who show up to /r/Fitness want to lose weight," cautions menuitem. "But fitness is about being able to do the things that you want to do. So forget about losing weight. If you join and say, 'I want to lose 50 pounds,' you'll get a bunch of pissed-off redditors commenting, 'You didn't read the FAQ!'"

What people really want is to reduce their body fat percentage, menuitem explains. They want to morph their body shape from plump to toned.

Fortunately, /r/Fitness can help. The FAQ and numerous discussion threads guide you in calculating your body fat. Or if you're really daring, you can choose to post an anonymous, headless photo of yourself in a bathing suit, and have other redditors estimate your body fat for you.

Fix Your Diet

The next piece of advice you'll get from the Reddit community, says menuitem, is, "If you want to lose fat, that's diet. Not exercise." /r/Fitness can help you fix your diet in just three weeks. You'll figure out your calorie needs depending on your fitness goals (e.g., eat more protein if you want to build muscle). You'll find links to amazing mobile apps and online tools for tracking calories and nutrients, and monitoring your weight loss over the course of the month.

If you're interested in a specific nutritional program, such as zero-carb/superhigh-protein (/r/keto) or Paleo (/r/paleo), there is probably a subreddit for that, too.

Pick Your Program

Confused about which nutrition and exercise training program you should follow? Well, that depends on your fitness goals. Do you want to trim fat or gain muscle? Do you have any dietary constraints? Are you interested in improving your performance in a specific sport?

The free Program Picker app, created by an /r/fitness regular, will help you determine which program will best help you achieve your goals.

There's a Lot of Weightlifting Talk Here...

"Once you get diet under control, fitness is mostly about weightlifting," says menuitem:

The number one complaint you'll hear from newbie fitness redditors is, "Why do people talk about weightlifting all the time here? That's not a fun activity."

The community response usually is: "Well, do you want to get fit or have fun?" There's tennis, baseball, tag, which you will get good at by doing. But if you want to improve your overall fitness -- your ability to participate in any sport -- then you must increase your strength. And the way to do that is with weights.

You'll find tons of advice on /r/Fitness about strength training, and you can always hit up the /r/Weightlifting and /r/WeightRoom subreddits if you want to go even deeper.

It's a Community

You may come to the site looking for information, but what drives ongoing involvement in /r/Fitness is the community. Newbies often use it as a support group. More experienced users will guide them through their questions and answer specific inquiries about various fitness programs.

For people who want the direct cheerleading of the "Good for you for running your first mile today!" sort, there's the Sunday Victory Thread, which menuitem started. Users post their fitness triumphs, and others will congratulate them. There's also the Monday Moronic Thread: Ask any stupid question you want about fitness. The Thursday Supplement Thread talks about nutritional supplements. And there are others.

As menuitem explains, "There's definitely a social aspect to it. Users like knowing that there's an actual human being who can respond to their questions and concerns."

So why not try it today? I'd be curious to hear what you think.

For more by MeiMei Fox, click here.

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.