The first time several of us at our psychology practice stepped foot into a gym, we put one foot into the weight room, looked around, and walked right out. We know we’re not the only ones.
We’ve all felt anxious at the gym at some point. Those feelings of shame and embarrassment that come with being at the gym are not an anomaly – they’re just gym anxiety. Let’s break down what gym anxiety is, possible triggers, and how to overcome gym anxiety.
What is gym anxiety?
Gym anxiety refers to feeling self-conscious in the face of an intimidating or possibly embarrassing situation at the gym. It often stems from fear of being judged based on appearance or athletic capability. Regardless of age, size, or gender, gym anxiety affects nearly all gym-goers at one point or another. You are not alone.
Possible triggers of gym anxiety:
- You are new to working out
Being a beginner is daunting enough as it is, and seeing other people who are ahead in their fitness journey may bring up feelings of inferiority. Perhaps you might think they will judge you, make fun of you, or think you do not belong. Being in a new situation and environment is likely to bring up feelings of anxiety.
- You are at a new gym
Even if you’re a seasoned gym-goer, visiting a new gym can be daunting. Trying to find the equipment you’re looking for, navigating around the locker rooms, and getting acquainted with new people can all provoke anxiety.
- The gym is crowded
When the gym is packed, it’s easy to feel flustered trying to find empty equipment and complete your usual routine. You may feel like everyone is staring at you or judging you. Post-pandemic, many people feel uneasy being in crowded indoor spaces which may escalate feelings of anxiety.
- You are the only woman in the weight room
In most gyms, the weight room is typically male-dominated. Many women that want to reap the benefits of resistance training never end up doing so out of gym anxiety in the weight room. You may feel out of place, nervous about doing the exercises incorrectly, and intimidated by others in the room.
Tips for overcoming gym anxiety:
- Focus on your values
Think about why you are going to the gym in the first place. Is it to elevate your mood, improve your mental health, to get stronger? When you feel yourself becoming anxious at the gym, try to focus on these values. You aren’t there to compare yourself to others or bring yourself down. You are on your own wellness journey for yourself. You can remind yourself of your values before you walk into the gym or when you start to feel anxious.
- Do your research
Having unknowns can be a trigger for anxiety. Try to eliminate as many unknowns as you can prior to going to the gym. You can even start by researching a body positive gym in your area. Next, go in for a tour so you can get acquainted with the layout, the machines, and the people before you start training. If you are worried about the gym being crowded, ask the front desk when off-peak hours are and start going during those windows. Each gym has a different vibe so it’s important to pick a gym that you feel comfortable in. When you are at the gym for a tour look around and see if the gym feels inclusive of all shapes and sizes. See if you see people around your age as well.
- Hire a trainer
If you are a beginner, starting out with a personal trainer may be beneficial. Even if it’s just for one or two sessions, the trainer will be able to teach you what exercises to do and how to perform them correctly. Once you feel comfortable, you can venture out on your own or stick with a personalized training program. Many gyms have deals on joining and personal training sessions.
- Go with a gym buddy
Going to the gym alone can be intimidating and scary at first. If you have a friend or family member that is experienced in the gym, try going with them until you feel at ease going alone. They will be able to show you around the gym, help you with your form, and offer support whenever anxious feelings arise.
- Try out group fitness classes
If you don’t have a gym buddy to go with, group classes may be a good way to ease into the gym life. This way, the stress of not knowing what to do is gone as you simply follow what the instructor says. It is also a good way to meet new people and make friends that you could potentially start going with. Most gyms have a wide selection of classes to choose from such as pilates, barre, spin, yoga, HIIT, and bodypump.
- Use anxiety reducing strategies
Despite all these tips, there will probably be a time when the gym anxiety creeps in and you begin to get overwhelmed. In these situations, try to utilize anxiety reducing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing. Sit down, relax your body, and put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in slowly through your nose, then purse your lips and exhale slowly while your stomach contracts. A 2017 study showed that this breathing technique lowers stress and cortisol levels.
Making the decision to start going to the gym can be a really positive health behavior. It is a step towards an improvement in your mental health, energy, mood, and strength. While gym anxiety may be a difficulty you face on your journey, you have the power to overcome it. No matter what potential gym anxiety triggers arise, we hope you now have the tools to battle any obstacle in your way. Remember: you’ve got this. If you need support with anxiety, gym anxiety, body image, an eating disorder, health or wellness remember that we are also here to help.
Thank you to Best Within You Therapy & Wellness Intern, Rumi Petvora