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"Gymtimidation": How to Embrace and Overcome Gym Anxiety

Has gym anxiety, or the fear of going to the gym, prevented you from achieving your fitness goals?

Tell me if you can relate to any of these scenarios:

· Fear of judgement from others?

· Not knowing what to do or how to use equipment?

· Comparing yourself to others?

· Unsure how to perform certain lifts and fear of looking silly?

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. In fact, a study by FitRated shows that 65% of women and 36% of men experience “gymtimidation” or gym aversion. We all know that getting a good workout in is great for our mental health, though ironically, many people who have the best intentions to start exercising are unable to stick to it due to the anxiety evoked by the gym. Once we’re comfortable at the gym, however, it is an intensely motivating and uplifting place to be, quite the opposite of what we’ve feared. We feed off the energy of others and vice versa. Getting comfortable at the gym is easier said than done though, right? So, let’s figure out how to get you there.

The best way you can conquer gym anxiety is to target the root of the problem. The first step is to understand why you feel a sense of unease each time you plan to go to the gym, and from there you can devise a strategy that will help you to manage and overcome those feelings.

Fear is all about the unknown. No one likes the feeling of uncertainty. The solution to the issue of gym anxiety is simple: become more certain.

Let’s talk about each of the fears mentioned above, what it might look like for you, and how to overcome it.

1) Fear of judgement from others

Listen, I totally get it. Now, you might be eye-rolling here and thinking “there’s no way Shannon gets it, she’s so fit”, but please remember that I was not always this way. I wasn’t just born fit, I had to work at it like everyone else. Looking back to my early 20s when I decided I wanted to start working out, I probably joined (and quit) 5 different gyms before I figured out a strategy to overcome my apprehension. I was that girl who was afraid to walk through certain sections of the gym because I felt like I didn’t fit in and thought others could sense it. I would end up just using cardio equipment or doing crunches on a mat in a corner because I was too afraid that others would judge me for not being fit enough or strong enough. I assumed that everyone would notice my inexperience and make fun of me behind my back.

Now that I go to the gym regularly, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The vast majority of gym members aren’t sparing you a second of thought. In fact, they might feel the same as you and be equally concerned about onlookers.

  • If someone is judging you, that reflects more poorly on them than it does on you. Besides, does it really matter if they judge you? Does it physically affect your workout? Nope. Just keeping doing you.

  • People are way more concerned with their own workouts than with watching yours.

  • The “regulars” are usually the members who are the friendliest, least judgemental, and most willing to help. After all, they had to start somewhere too so they know what it’s like to be in your position.

2) Not knowing what to do or how to use equipment

This is one of the main concerns I hear from new clients. Many of them had been attempting to work out from home with minimal equipment, often sacrificing the potential for much better results, because they just didn’t know what exercises to do or how to use any of the equipment at the gym. Working out from home is great if you can stick with it, but I know very few fit people who would say that they get a better workout at home or that they’ll be able to stick with it long term. Likewise, I know plenty of folks who do go to the gym but only do fitness classes or cardio, again, because they want to lift weights but are fearful of doing it on their own. No one wants to look silly trying to figure out a piece of equipment they don’t know how to use or to feel like they are walking around aimlessly because they’re not sure what to do.

How do your overcome this? Plan ahead. A great strategy is to plan your workout before going to the gym. This gives you the opportunity to look up the most effective exercises and proper form before you go, taking the stress out of it when you get there. Write down your plan and bring it with you. My clients get access to my custom fitness app for this very reason, and this is where I program all their workouts. Within the app, they can see exactly what exercises to do, how many reps and sets, and it allows them to track their progress. There are even short instructional videos for every single move. If you don’t have access to something like this, you can write down your plan on pen and paper or track in the Notes section of your phone. Tracking your workouts is also great for celebrating progress. It’s extremely motivating to look back on where you started as you continue to progress and improve.

3) Comparing yourself to others

I think most of us do this before we even get to the gym. I know I certainly did. I’d worry about who was likely to be there and how everyone would be ripped but me. After all, aren’t gyms just full of shredded bodybuilders and power lifters? Isn’t everyone grunting and flexing and showing off? That’s what we’ve seen on tv, right? Once you get to the gym, even when you discover that there are usually very chiseled athletes, you may start comparing yourself to everyone you perceive as being more fit than you. Common comparisons include feeling like you’re too overweight, or too underweight, that you’re not wearing the right clothes, or that you can’t lift as much weight as other people.

Here’s the thing though. This is your starting point. You don’t know what other folks’ starting point was. Maybe they were extremely overweight and put in years of work to reach their current fitness level. Maybe they couldn’t do a single bodyweight squat when they started and now they’ve got 200lbs on the bar. Maybe they lost a spouse and the gym was their escape and they’ve since made friends that have become like family. You can’t compare yourself to someone you know nothing about. Focus on your own starting point and where you want to get and celebrate the milestones along the way. Trust me when I say that those “regulars” at the gym are happy to see you putting in the work each day. Your presence and your work ethic help motivate them to push through their own workouts. It works both ways. Feed off their energy, say hello, ask for tips (I assure you, they will be flattered and happy to help), and then crush your workout!

4) Unsure how to perform certain lifts or fear of looking silly

This is another big one. When I first joined the gym that I ultimately stuck with, I did all my workouts in the women’s only section. This wasn’t because I was afraid to be around men, in particular, but rather that there were simply fewer people in the women’s section so there would be less of a chance that someone would notice if I did something wrong. I had a few machines that I knew how to use so I would stick to those, never venturing toward a squat rack or the row of benches and dumbbells I so desperately wanted to use (which are always in front of the dreaded mirrors, where I would be on full display). If there was a chance I would do it wrong or not know how to use the equipment, I avoided it all together. I didn’t even want to walk through the section where the “fit people” were. I still giggle to myself when I think back to those days and how unnecessary my worries were.

There are a lot of different ways that you can handle this fear. First, I would recommend getting a tour of the gym. Learn where all the different equipment is so you don’t have to nervously walk around trying to find things. Even better than that, complete one or two introductory sessions with a Personal Trainer. They can show you how to use all the equipment and teach you correct form on exercises you’re unsure about. This is something I encourage all my new clients to do prior to beginning any of my training programs. The opportunity for them to ask questions and practice the exercises in a 1:1, private environment is a game changer for them. The difference in their confidence after only one training session is remarkable.

Another great way to reduce gym anxiety is what I call the Expectation Strategy. I go in expecting to look silly sometimes. I expect to make mistakes or not have perfect form. I still stumble and lose my balance during certain exercises. I still occasionally choose a weight that’s way too heavy and then have to do the walk of shame back to the dumbbell rack and select something lighter. Is it momentarily embarrassing? Sure, it can be. It happens to everyone though, and I am happy to report that when I’ve stumbled or improperly used a machine, I didn’t die or spontaneously combust. No one laughed at me. If anything, other gym members would laugh with you and tell you about the time the same thing happened to them!

Remember, part of any new experience is feeling the fear, understanding it, managing it, and pursuing it anyway. Now, go crush those fitness goals!

- Coach Shan

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