For some of us, going to the gym is an uplifting experience. We boost our endorphins, power through our goals, and leave feeling fantastic. For others, even the idea of going to the gym leaves us feeling a sense of dread. A fear that it’s somewhere we don’t fit in. Somewhere we feel self-conscious or even stupid. A place we’d rather avoid but go to because we think we need to. That feeling is gym anxiety – a prevalent form of social anxiety. Here’s what it is, how to overcome it and how it has changed in recent years.
What is gym anxiety?
Remember feeling nervous on your first day at a new school or job? Well, gym anxiety is similar to this: a new environment, equipment, people, terminology, and even new classes. Gyms can be pretty intimidating to the uninitiated. Even if you’ve been to a gym before, trying out a new one or giving a new class or a new piece of equipment a go can cause feelings of awkwardness, intimidation, or embarrassment.
So, why exactly do some people experience gym anxiety? Here are some of the common triggers:
- Feeling uncomfortable about changing in front of people
- Feeling uncomfortable about wearing gym clothes in public
- Feeling self-conscious that people are staring at you
- Feeling self-conscious about sweating
- Feeling intimidated by people who you think are in better shape/physically fitter than you
- Feeling intimidated by people who have more experience or skill
- Feeling awkward about using new equipment
- Feeling awkward about trying a new group session or class
For some people, the above feelings can cause them to struggle to train at the gym and potentially deter them from returning. They fear being judged or laughed at in a way that is also reminiscent of school.
For performance coach and gym owner Ville Rintala, there is one place where people tend to feel most uncomfortable at the start. “The locker room. That’s the place where people get anxious, especially if you’re a new gym-goer or you’re unfit. You’ll see shirtless men or women and think, “Maybe I’m in the wrong place?” For some, the locker room takes some getting used to, even as adults.
The locker room. That’s the place where people get anxious, especially if you’re a new gym-goer or you’re unfit.Performance coach and gym owner Ville Rintala
Ville also points out that the fear of others looking at you in the gym is often largely unfounded. “If people are training in the gym, they don’t have time to look at what others are doing. Usually, people have their headphones on and are focusing on their own stuff.” However, sometimes having a member of the gym’s team keep an eye on you isn’t always a bad thing. “I would rather help them,” says Ville. “Give them advice, like, “OK, if you’re lifting like that, you might hurt yourself. Try it like this.”
Weight room anxiety
One area of the gym that can feel particularly intimidating is the weight room. Traditionally, it was almost exclusively the domain of men with bulging muscles. That could make anyone feel like they don’t belong there, especially women. It’s not uncommon for people to walk into the weight room, look around and walk straight out again, never to return.
Another reason is the equipment. How is it used? What weights are suitable for you? Am I doing this correctly? Will I injure myself? Trying strength training for the first time can be confusing if a trainer isn’t guiding you. It can feel especially awkward if you’re attempting it in public, surrounded by people you assume are already experts.
In recent years, the number of women who train with weights has increased.CrossFit athlete and Polar Ambassador Alice Mastriani
The good news is: weight rooms have changed. These days, they are much more diverse environments. It’s not uncommon to find women spotting each other’s bench presses. “In recent years, the number of women who train with weights has increased,” says CrossFit athlete and Polar Ambassador Alice Mastriani. “Strong women with muscles are becoming commonplace.”
It’s also now possible to educate yourself a little before making that first tentative foray into the weight room. The internet is full of informative videos and advice for learning where to start and how to have the correct form, which can help to ease that initial anxiety. However, using a coach is the best approach for trying strength training. “Weightlifting involves very complex movements,” notes Alice. “So for this reason, we need someone competent to teach us to perform the movements correctly.”
Social media and the gym
Another way that the online world appears to have eased gym anxiety is through social media. For Ville, there have been noticeably fewer people struggling with gym anxiety. “I think why people go to the gym is different from ten years ago. Nowadays, people are actually smarter about training, and that’s due to social media because there are a lot of good influencers who are explaining what you’re doing and why.”
I think why people go to the gym is different from ten years ago. Nowadays, people are actually smarter about training, and that’s due to social media.Performance coach and gym owner Ville Rintala
However, not every fitness influencer gives the right advice. “There are also a lot of bad ones,” acknowledges Ville, “They don’t have any idea, and they are still trying to explain why you should squat or whatever.” Social media also has some downsides for the gym. “People are now looking at pictures taken in perfect conditions, which is not reality,” observes Ville. “It makes people feel self-conscious about their bodies, and they compare themselves to what they see on social media. This is the same thing for men and women. To be honest, I see it more with men now.”
So once again, people are educating themselves before they even step foot inside the gym. However, we should be aware of comparing ourselves and our bodies to the impossible standards that good lighting and airbrushing can create online.
Covid and the gym
The pandemic greatly affected gyms and how we interact with them – and continues to do so. “Honestly, people haven’t yet come back,” says Ville. “Covid caused a lifestyle change, and people started to realize that they don’t necessarily need a gym.”
Covid caused a lifestyle change, and people started to realize that they don’t necessarily need a gym.Performance coach and gym owner Ville Rintala
For some, this could be because they are still anxious about whether it’s safe or if they will have to navigate new restrictions. Others may feel like they don’t need the gym anymore. “After COVID, I think there are a lot of new hobbies,” says Ville. “Some people like cycling. Paddle tennis in Finland is huge at the moment. People have realized there’s a lot so much more to do rather than just lifting weights.”
What this does mean is that this may be an excellent time to join a gym for the first time. Fewer people could mean you feel less intimidated, and the staff will be delighted to welcome a new member and help you get started.
Tips for overcoming gym anxiety
Do some prep work
As mentioned above, one of the best ways to overcome gym anxiety if you are new is to do some preparation. Go on a tour of your gym, ask the staff questions, research the classes and facilities, and watch some online videos to learn more about different styles and techniques.
Write down your first (second, and third) workout in advance
Before you hit the gym on the first day:
- Write down a simple workout for you to try.
- Start slow, with simple, achievable goals for your first few sessions.
- Remember, this is an important adjustment time to get comfortable, find your feet, and overcome any anxiety in the gym.
Actively focus on yourself
It’s easy to compare yourself to other people in the gym. Maybe they are lifting bigger weights or effortlessly getting into a yoga pose that you are struggling with? The problem with losing focus is not only are you likely to think you aren’t doing well, but you’re also increasing the chance of hurting yourself mid-workout. So, plug in your headphone and pay attention to your breathing and how your body feels. These practices will help you not to look around too much.
Try off-peak hours
If the idea of a busy gym is intimidating, try going during times when there are fewer people there. If your gym offers an off-peak membership, then this is a good way of understanding what sessions are quieter. Alternatively, chat with the staff for their advice on what days and times you may enjoy a bit more space.
Go with a friend
For many of us, trying something new on our own is the most intimidating part of starting at a new gym. So, perhaps choose a gym a friend already goes to so you can tag along with them for your first few sessions. Alternatively, if you have a friend who is also keen to get fit, sign up simultaneously and take the leap together.
Hire a trainer
The best way to overcome any gym anxiety is to work with a professional who can personally show you how everything works and help develop a training plan that is right for you. A trainer is an ideal way to prevent yourself from quitting before you’ve even started because they will help you get started on your fitness journey and also understand all the concerns and fears you may have.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.