Have you ever felt anxious or self-conscious about going to the gym? If so, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon to feel anxious about starting the gym but thankfully there are lots of ways we can manage these feelings. In this vybey article we are going to discuss some simple techniques for managing our “gymtimidation”1, as it’s been dubbed. This could mean feeling anxious about changing in front of people, feeling intimidated by people who are in better shape, having trouble using equipment or feeling like people are staring at you. These techniques can make your "gymtimidation" more manageable and less anxiety inducing2.
Benefits of Exercise for Anxiety
Exercise has been shown to decrease stress hormones, distract from negative thoughts and emotions, promote confidence, is a good source of social support, improves mental and physical health and protects against stress3. Exercise plays a key role in our wellbeing and can help to improve our mental health by decreasing feelings of anxiousness by reducing the body’s sensitivity to anxiety. Regular exercise can even help reduce symptoms of other common co-occurring conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)3. Exercise has also been shown to promote the growth of new neurons which play a key role in relieving symptoms of mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. Physical activity has been shown to improve mood, energy levels and promote quality sleep3.
Manage Negative Thinking
Managing social anxiety disorder requires a lot of work in managing our negative thought process. These negative thoughts can cause us to spiral and keep us trapped in unhealthy and crippling states of anxiety2. Thankfully, we can learn to identify and aim to replace these negative thoughts with evidence-based thinking to help manage our feelings of anxiety when they arise. Try replacing “I feel so anxious, I can’t get through this workout” with “I can do this, I just need to keep counting the reps and do my best”2. One of the most effective ways of treating anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), this is based on the principle that your thoughts impact your feelings, which in turn impacts your behaviours4. Challenging and changing our negative thought process can help us feel better and less anxious.
Celebrate Your Victories, No Matter How Small
We often focus on the negatives and our failures. However, celebrating our victories, no matter how small, has multiple benefits such as improving our motivation and energy levels, furthering our personal and professional growth and increasing our self-love and happiness5. Supporting your friend’s and family’s victories can also help to improve their confidence and wellbeing and help to build a strong support network around you. We recommend making a list of all your victories in an accessible place so you can refer back to them whenever you are feeling anxious.
Acknowledge and Accept Your Fears
Take some time to think about what it is that’s making you anxious. This might sound counterintuitive but studies have shown that suppressing fear doesn’t help to eliminate it but in fact causes it to grow and become harder to manage5. This means that it is so important that we understand what is triggering these feelings in order to address them and overcome them. We recommend writing each fear down and why it scares you, then start drafting ideas about how to overcome this fear and the benefits of overcoming it.
Accept That You Can’t Do Everything
Although it’s important that we believe in ourselves, we also need to be realistic. We’re not going to know or be able to do everything straight away, learning new things is all part of the adventure5. It’s important that we ease ourselves into our exercise programme in order to avoid burnout or injury. Remember it’s ok if you don’t understand how to use some of the equipment, most gyms will have staff members on site that will be more than happy to help you out.
Remember This is an Adventure and an Opportunity
There are so many wonderful benefits to exercise and starting your health and fitness journey is something to be proud of. This is an exciting new opportunity to meet new people, learn new things and truly transform your life and health. Anxiety and excitement often feel very similar and by training yourself to recognise gym anxiety as excitement, we can begin to feel excited about our trips to the gym.
Focus On Your Workout
It's common for people to feel self-conscious and exposed in the gym as they believe that people will be watching and judging them; psychologists have dubbed this the spotlight effect. Put simply, we tend to over exaggerate how much other people notice about us and think there is a so-called spotlight on us highlighting our flaws, mistakes and insecurities6. The truth is, we are all caught up in our own worlds and more often than not don’t pay attention to anyone around us, particularly in the gym when most people are focused on their workout. Concentrate on yourself and remember how well you’re doing7. This is a great chance to focus on celebrating your victories and reminding yourself of the opportunities that going to the gym will offer.
Bring a Friend or Fitness Mentor
Bringing a friend to the gym who helps you feel safe and comfortable can help to reduce your anxiety levels and can help provide a welcome distraction and reassurance7. Working out with a friend or someone who knows what they’re doing can also help you both stay consistent and increase the likelihood of achieving your goals7. If you are struggling with your mental health, bringing a friend to the gym and easing yourself into a workout can help to improve your motivation and make your time at the gym more enjoyable.
The aim of gradual exposure is to expose yourself to the environment, the equipment, and working out at the gym. Gradually exposing yourself to a new situation that makes you feel anxious can help you better manage those feelings until you feel more comfortable and comfortable in your environment8. We recommend starting by researching the gym, so you know what to expect and then trying to go in and ask for a tour.
Consider Going at Off-Peak Times
With our increasingly busy way of life, it’s not uncommon for gyms to be open long hours or even twenty-four hours per day. We recommend contacting your gym and asking when they are quietest. This means that there will be times when the gym is quieter and these times can be a great tool to ease yourself into the gym by getting used to the equipment and the environment while it’s quiet. However, going to the gym when it is busier gives you the opportunity to observe how other people are using the equipment and can even reassure you that everyone is focusing on themselves and won’t be judging you7.
Create a Psychological Barrier
Wearing headphones to listen to music, audiobooks or podcasts is a great way to distract yourself and send the message that you don’t want to be bothered2. However, we don’t recommend doing this in the long term as the gym is a great place to meet new people and build lasting friendships.
Whilst joining the gym can be daunting for many people, this can be particularly true for women. One alternative to help a woman feel more comfortable could be finding a local female only gym. The gym isn’t a good fit for everyone though, so if you find that it isn’t working for you, that’s ok. The most important thing is that we keep our bodies moving in order to improve our physical and mental health. If the gym isn’t your game, why not try working out at home, walking/running in nature or attending a yoga class2. Remember that even if you don’t feel confident at first, your confidence will grow once you become more comfortable and get used to your environment.
Gyms are a great place to make new friends and find a supportive and encouraging community. There are so many different types of gyms to suit different people and we recommend researching the different options in your local area. We understand that starting a gym can be scary and sometimes quite intimidating but we hope these tips can help you manage your feelings of anxiety. Feel free to email us if you have any questions or would just like to say hello.
1 Chastain, R., (2018). The Complete Guide to Overcoming Gymtimidation [online]. Better Humans. Available from https://betterhumans.pub/the-complete-guide-to-overcoming-gymtimidation-c94750b1e7db
2 Cuncic, A., (2020). How to Cope with Social Anxiety at the Gum [online]. Very Well Mind. Available from https://www.verywellmind.com/cope-with-social-anxiety-at-the-gym-4125214
3 Star, K., (2021). The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Exercise [online]. Very Well Mind. Available from https://www.verywellmind.com/physical-exercise-for-panic-disorder-and-anxiety-2584094
4 Hudson Therapy Group, (2021). The Cognitive Triangle: What it is and How it Works [online]. Hudson Therapy Group. Available from https://hudsontherapygroup.com/blog/cognitive-triangle
5 Kerr, M., (2019). Advice on Overcoming Your Gym Anxiety [online]. Puregym. Available from https://www.puregym.com/blog/how-to-get-over-gym-anxiety/
6 Cuncic, A., (2021) The Spotlight Effect and Social Anxiety [online]. Very Well Mind. Available from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-spotlight-effect-3024470
7 Precor, (2021). Gym Anxiety: What it is and How to Get Over it [online]. Precor. Available from https://www.precor.com/en-us/resources/gym-anxiety-how-get-over-it
8 Cuncic, A., (2020). How to Practice Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder [online]. Very Well Mind. Available from https://www.verywellmind.com/practice-social-anxiety-disorder-exposure-therapy-3024845