Can’t bear the thought of lifting weights next to a buff stranger? Terrified of being judged for your slower pace on the treadmill? Just have no idea how to use those fancy workout machines?
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If the idea of going to the gym makes you feel intimidated and a little panicky, you’re not alone. “Gymtimidation” is a term that refers to this exact feeling — but the good news is that you can overcome it.
Gym + intimidation = gymtimidation, or the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm that sometimes come with the idea of working out in the presence of others.
If you’re not a regular gym-goer, one visit inside can give you the impression that everyone else there is — that the people around you know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it, and that they’ll judge you if you’re not up to speed (literally and figuratively).
Everyone’s triggers are different, but there are a few common fears often associated with gym-related anxiety and nervousness.
“It’s very important to understand your individual triggers,” says Matthew Sacco, PhD. “Identifying them will likely help explain more about how to deal with your gym anxiety.”
Here are some possibilities.
When you walk into a gym, it can seem like everyone around you knows exactly what they’re doing — and if you don’t know what you’re doing, that can feel really intimidating.
“Sometimes, people experience anxiety because they’re uncertain about how to use various equipment and fear embarrassing themselves if they ‘do it wrong’ or aren’t able to get the equipment to function properly,” Dr. Sacco says.
If you’re used to working out from home or just haven’t been to the gym in a while, you might feel nervous about being around so many people.
“Sometimes, simply not having been in the gym for a long time, whether it be because of COVID-19 or any other reasons, can elicit an anxiety response,” Dr. Sacco notes. “It can be helpful to distinguish if you’re having anxiety about the gym or more broadly about being around people.”
Figuring out the difference between the two (or whether you’re dealing with both!) can help you determine which coping strategies are most likely to be helpful.
It’s common for gym newbies to feel like everyone is looking at them. “Many people experience anxiety because they’re worried about what others might think of how they look,” Dr. Sacco recognizes.
This can be made worse by the fact that gym attire is often skimpier and more form-fitting than everyday clothing.
“Whether you’re anxious about changing in the locker room or being out in the gym in shorts and a tee shirt, this level of exposure and vulnerability can cause some people to become hyperfocused on things like weight, body proportions, visible muscles and so on,” Dr. Sacco explains.
Plus, if one of the reasons you’re hitting the gym is to lose weight or tone up, you may already be feeling less-than-thrilled with your body — and being at the gym can magnify those feelings.
“It can coincide with more complex issues with body image that are likely to be more longstanding and extend beyond going to the gym,” Dr. Sacco adds.
The poet Robert Frost once wrote, “The best way out is always through” — but getting through is a lot easier when you do a little bit of prep work first. Dr. Sacco recommends strategies for getting yourself in the right frame of mind to tackle your anxiety and become a gym-goer.
Feeling ready can help you feel more confident, so research nearby gyms and workout facilities by turning to your trusty old friend, the internet.
“As we might suggest for anyone with anxiety who is anticipating starting something new, do your homework,” Dr. Sacco says.
See what services, amenities, classes and hours they offer, and check their social media content to get a feel for their vibe.
Did you know that gyms give tours upon request? They want you to feel comfortable there, too!
“It can be much easier to walk into a gym in street clothes and tell them you’re in the process of selecting a new gym and you’d like to have a tour to see what they offer,” Dr. Sacco says. “That way, you can get a lay of the land without any pressure.”
Once you do come back for a workout, you’ll already know exactly where the locker rooms are, what the shower situation is like, how to sign up for equipment and so on.
Whether you ask in person during a tour or give the gym a call from the comfort of home, don’t hesitate to ask for clarifications (for example, “I saw online that you have Pilates classes on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Are they ever offered at other times?”).
“It’s OK to explain that you’re a beginner or maybe just getting back to the gym after some time away,” Dr. Sacco reassures. “Especially if you’re just starting out, it can feel like a relief just to say that out loud.”
Think personal trainers are just for reality TV stars and elite fitness folks? Think again! Most gyms have personal trainers on staff who you can hire for the long term or just for a couple of sessions.
“It can help alleviate the anxiety of not knowing what to do when in the gym and can help you feel less isolated,” Dr. Sacco says. “It can also help you get the most out of your workout while you’re there.”
And trainer can help you get acclimated to the gym in general, like by teaching you how to properly use gym equipment.
If your vague intentions of hitting the gym are always lingering in the back of your mind, shrouded by anxiety, you may never actually walk through those gym doors. Schedule your trip to the gym like you would any other appointment, Dr. Sacco suggests — and then, hold yourself to it.
“Setting aside specific time to go to the gym can help increase the likelihood of following through,” he says. “If you share a home with other people, write it on the calendar where others can see it, so they know that’s when mom or dad is going to the gym.”
Gyms are often at their most crowded right and after before typical work hours — early in the morning and right around 5:30 p.m. During other times, like mid-morning or later at night, many gyms are all but empty.
“If you’re able, plan to go to the gym at off-peak times when it’s least crowded,” Dr. Sacco advises. “This will give you the chance to try some things without the large audience that many with gym anxiety feel is looking at them.”
Everything is a little less scary with a buddy. In this case, partnering up with a pal can help reduce anxiety and make your gym experience more enjoyable.
“Having a workout partner is great for accountability and improving your likelihood of sticking with it,” Dr. Sacco says. “It’s even better when you’re doing something like going to the gym for the first time."
You could ask a friend who has some experience with the gym and can help you feel more at ease using equipment and getting used to the space. But it’s also OK if the person who joins you isn’t yet gym-savvy.
“It’s often still easier to do it with someone else, even if the other person isn’t an expert either,” Dr. Sacco says. “You can figure the whole thing out together.”
If your anxiety is related to picturing yourself staring blankly around the gym trying to figure out which exercise to try next, a fitness class might be a good choice for you.
“If you’re a person who doesn’t mind being around others, or even someone who prefers it, you could try a class, like spinning,” Dr. Sacco suggests. “Then, you don’t have to worry about not knowing what to do. The instructor will tell you!”
Your local gym may offer group classes, or you can look for activity-specific studios to take classes like:
If you can’t bring yourself to make the first move and give the gym a try, your anxiety may need a bit of a professional assist.
“Getting professional help for pre-existing anxiety is always a good idea,” Dr. Sacco encourages. “Especially if you have anxiety about social situations, or about germs and cleanliness, it’s going to be very difficult to be able to even get to the gym, let alone have any consistency.”
Look for a therapist who can help you get to the root of your gym anxiety and begin to work through it.
Don’t let anxiety lead you to skip the gym or shun working out altogether! Dr. Sacco cautions that “gymtimidation” won’t go away on its own — and it definitely won’t go away if you don’t address it.
“If your anxiety prevents you from going to the gym in the first place, then it likely will not go away over time,” he says. “It might go away for the moment, but it will come right back the next time you think about going to the gym.”
Routine is key. Once you start working through your anxiety and get used to #gymlife, you’ll start to feel more comfortable and confident.
There’s no doubt that exercise is good for your physical health, but did you know that it’s also good for your mental health?
“Exercise has been shown over and over to lessen rates of both anxiety and depression,” Dr. Sacco says.
It all comes down to endorphins, which are hormones that your body releases during pleasurable activities to help relieve pain, reduce stress and just generally make you feel better.
And even though you might not think of exercise as “pleasurable” (or not initially, anyway), your body does. It’s one of the best ways to release endorphins!
“That doesn’t mean that going to the gym is a necessary component,” Dr. Sacco notes. “Just start by being active, whatever that means to you.”
As the old saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” It’s true about all kinds of things, from the foods you eat to the clothes you wear to the experiences you seek out. And it’s true about workouts, too.
“It’s always a good idea to have a variety of workouts at your disposal,” Dr. Sacco says. “Having variety can help you continue exercising, which is the most important thing, when you can’t or are unable to get to the gym.”
There are plenty of ways to get in a good workout that don’t even involve leaving your home. You may have the means to invest in home exercise equipment, like a weight bench and a spinning bike. But there are lower-cost and free alternatives, too, like online yoga classes.
“There are lots of online programs now that allow you to work out from home but with the benefit of social connections through a virtual class,” Dr. Sacco notes. “Get creative!”
Love nature? Exercising outside has the added benefit of being totally free. Depending on where you live, you may have easy access to roads and trails for biking, walking and running. Plus, some parks have free exercise equipment you can use, too.
And then, there are outdoor sports, like playing a game of pick-up basketball, kicking around a soccer ball with friends or just tossing a Frisbee with a pal.
If you tend to think of walking as little more than a mode of transportation to get you from one point to another, reframe your thinking. The health benefits of walking may surprise you! It’s been shown to help improve heart health, reduce stress and fight food cravings, and even help boost self-esteem.
It can take time to overcome anxiety — and you may find that some days are better than others. Work slowly and steadily toward your goals, and keep your body moving even when the gym isn’t in the cards for you.
“Eventually, you might be ready for the gym, and if that’s important to you, go for it,” Dr. Sacco says. “If not, don’t let that stop you from being active.”