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Gym Anxiety: 10 Ways to Face Your Fears

How to combat gym intimidation, lace up your sneakers and start working out

woman and man working out at a gym
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There’s no question that going to the gym for the first time or after a long hiatus can be intimidating. After all, different exercise classes often have their cliques, yoga and Pilates sessions may be filled with sculpted bodies, and the weight-lifting area may have hardcore exercise enthusiasts trying to best one another. Who wouldn’t be nervous in that environment? 

But it’s a mistake to let your jitters deter you from seizing the opportunity to become healthier or fitter. Remember, at some point, there was a first class or workout at the gym for every member, so you’re in good company, even among the more experienced. To ease your trepidation, it can help to remind yourself of this fact.

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Why the anxiety?

To get over gym intimidation, try to identify the root cause of your anxiety. Is it that the environment feels foreign and overwhelming? Are you worried about not knowing how to use the equipment or what to do in a class? Are you afraid of looking silly, sweaty, out of shape or uncoordinated? In a study published in 2017, in the journal Stigma and Health, researchers surveyed 389 adult gym members who were overweight or obese and found that they experienced weight-related stigma, such as feeling negatively judged or embarrassed about their weight, at the gym. Fortunately, this didn’t affect the frequency of their attendance, but these feelings did take a toll on the participants’ coping behaviors and emotional well-being. “Irrespective of body size, there can be a sense of self-consciousness or vulnerability in fitness facilities,” says study coauthor Natasha Schvey, an assistant professor of medicine and clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

Ten strategies to try

Overcoming gym anxiety may help you achieve your fitness goals. Try these 10 strategies to discover the underpinnings of your gym anxiety.

1. Check out the scene.

If you’re new to a fitness facility, “go into the gym and ask for a tour,” advises Rachel Goldman, a licensed psychologist in New York City and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “The more we avoid things, the more anxiety-provoking they become. Exposure in small increments can help.” If you plan to take a class, stop by the aerobics, yoga or cycling studio a day or two ahead so you can get the lay of the land. If a class isn’t in session, go inside and take a look around. “If you’re joining a new gym, many offer a complimentary session with a trainer,” Schvey says. “Ask for an orientation to the equipment you’re interested in.”

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2. Go with a friend.

Not only will you have company and a sense of safety in numbers, but this way you can keep each other motivated and accountable to show up. Plus, you can support and encourage each other to push yourselves. But stay open to another upside: “The gym offers a community of like-minded people, and it’s an environment where you can feed off that energy and motivation through vicarious experiences,” says Pete McCall, a certified personal trainer in Carlsbad, California, and author of Ageless Intensity: High-Intensity Workouts to Slow the Aging Process. If you see someone who looks your age or whom you can relate to, watching them work out may inspire you to follow in their footsteps — or bench presses.

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3. Arrive early to your first class.

“Introduce yourself to the instructor, and mention any injuries or limitations you have,” Schvey suggests, then “ask what you need to get set up.” This way, you’ll be up to speed by the time the class starts and the instructor can keep an eye on you in case you need extra attention. If it feels better to stand in the back or observe from an outside window, don’t sweat it. Do what feels right to you, Goldman says.

4. Focus on why you’re there.

Keep your reasons for going to a fitness center and what you’re hoping to achieve front and center in your mind. To that end, it helps to set SMART— an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely — goals for your workouts, Goldman advises. Besides giving you a game plan for what you’re going to do, SMART goals can help you stay focused on what you’re doing at the gym.

5. Don’t play the comparison game.

“We cannot infer anything about somebody’s health or fitness level by looking at their body,” Schvey points out. And you can’t tell how hard someone is working just by observing. For example, some people who look like they’re going full throttle with speed in an indoor cycling class may have light resistance on the bike; you can’t tell from watching how hard exercisers are pushing themselves. So don’t go into comparison mode. Besides, it’s not a competition — this is your experience. “Try to really focus on you and what’s within your control,” Goldman says.

6. Practice mindfulness. 

If body-critical or comparative thoughts come to mind while you’re exercising, let them pass without engaging or judging them. “Acknowledge those thoughts, push them to the side, and focus on what you’re doing right now,” Goldman says. Use this as an opportunity to tune into and listen to your body, focusing on how it feels as you’re moving. Research has found that using mindfulness strategies helps older adults make healthy behavioral changes, such as exercising, and fosters self-acceptance. 

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7. Do a reality check on your thoughts.

When you’re at the gym, “remind yourself that no one is looking at you and judging you; they’re really focused on themselves,” Goldman says. Also, remember that thoughts are not facts, she adds, they’re just thoughts. So if you have a self-critical thought (such as, I’m going to look silly because I don’t know how to use the machines), pause and reframe it to something more constructive (such as, I don’t know how to use the machines, but I’m going to ask for help).

8. Temper your expectations.

If you haven’t been exercising consistently, “remember this is a process and there’s a learning curve,” Schvey says. Start slowly, and increase the intensity or duration of your workouts gradually. Also, “recognize that it might take a little while to feel comfortable navigating the gym,” Schvey adds. “The more you go, the more faces you’ll recognize, and the more comfortable you’ll feel.”

9. Take a baby step.

Consider this: Plan to do just 10 minutes on the treadmill, elliptical or other equipment of your choice. After you’ve done 10 minutes, another five may feel just as easy, or you may be ready to head home after 10 minutes and do 15 the next time. Just taking the step to lace up your sneakers and walk into the gym is a big achievement. Work your way up from there.

10. Give yourself positive reinforcement.

Many people feel a boost in self-confidence, mood and energy after working out. “Notice how good you feel with the release of endorphins and serotonin,” Goldman says. Thinking about this ahead of time can fuel your motivation for going to the gym, and noticing this after a workout can help you feel empowered, healthy and strong. Staying in touch with these feelings can help you keep up the good work (outs). 

AARP Members: Not quite ready for the gym? Try our 30-minute restorative Pilates class. The instructor offers gentle movements in this mat workout that are suitable for people of all fitness levels.

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