Is everyone judging you at the gym? ‘Gymtimidation’ is real
But that shouldn’t stop you from working out. Here are some tips.
You’ve wanted to join a gym for ages, but the thought of being the new kid on the strength blocks makes your palms sweat. You worry everyone will be sporting six packs, lifting heavy weights and sharing high fives – not to mention watching and judging you. Rest assured, you are in good company.
A 2019 survey, conducted by the market research firm OnePoll on behalf of a company that makes protein drinks, polled 2,000 Americans and found that around half of them experienced some form of anxiety about joining a gym, or what some playfully call “gymtimidation.” Another survey found that women in particular report having concerns about working out at the gym. The phenomenon is so widespread, even Planet Fitness has created a tagline promoting a “judgement-free zone.”
The reasons for such fears are myriad, including not feeling fit enough, poor body image, a lack of knowledge about fitness equipment or terminology and social anxiety. “The sense of intimidation layers over top the fact that you’re entering a new environment,” said Meghan Wieser, a certified strength and conditioning coach at Recharge: Modern Health and Fitness in Maryland.
But by avoiding the gym, you’re selling yourself short. Having access to trainers, equipment and community can all lead to a longer, healthier life. And if you developed the habit of going regularly, you might even find that you enjoy the gym life.
“Start by reminding yourself that everyone at the gym has had a first day,” Dr Wieser said, “and that fitness is for everyone.” By reframing your relationship with dumbbells, treadmills and sweaty rooms, you can overcome gymtimidation and begin a lifelong fitness habit.
OVERCOME YOUR FEARS
Latoya Shauntay Snell, a food and fitness content creator in Brooklyn, has been going to the gym for a decade, visiting three times a week for power lifting and cardio training. Yet even now, Snell experiences some anxiety entering a gym, especially if she is traveling and using a new facility.
“I’m a Black woman of size, and when you ask people what they picture when they think of an athlete, I’m not it,” Snell, 37, said. “So it’s easy to find myself in a space of intimidation at a gym.”
But Snell has long since learned to manage those feelings, she said. One of her favorite strategies for overcoming anxiety about going to a new gym is to spend the first week there learning the lay of the land. “Do some upfront research into what type of equipment and exercise you would enjoy and would benefit you,” Snell said. “Also get to know the staff through a gym tour.”
Tours are standard at most gyms, and Snell likens them to “a big hug,” as they give her a chance to ask questions that she might have been too nervous to ask otherwise. “It gives you an invitation to be new,” she said.
Pam Moore, a personal trainer in Boulder, Colo, recommended trying a free personal training session, if it’s offered. “Granted, they are trying to sell you a package, but it’s a great opportunity to learn how to use the equipment properly,” she said. “Or if there are group classes offered, maybe that’s a less intimidating place to start.”
You can make the new gym experience more manageable by learning one thing at a time, too, rather than trying everything at once. “It’s like renting a car and having to learn where every button is all at once – it’s overwhelming,” Moore said. “The same thing applies to the gym. Come up with one small marker for success, like mastering one machine or move.”
If you are at a loss for what to do, rowing machines and battle ropes are simple to use and provide comprehensive workouts. Or try a simple three-day short and sweet weight lifting routine for pushing, pulling and legs (but be clear on how best to avoid injury). If you prefer to skip equipment at first, do a simple body weight workout to get your feet wet.
Some gyms offer trial memberships, in which potential members get several one-on-one sessions to familiarize themselves with exercise movements, equipment and terminology. This worked for Patricia Cully, a retired information technology professional from Ellicott City, Md. Cully spent years trying to train on her own, only to repeatedly injure her ankle. Then, a trainer she was working with failed to modify her workout accordingly, and she injured it again. Cully realised that a gym environment might not be right for her. After much prodding, however, a friend convinced her to do a trial period at a new gym. Two years later, she is now a regular.
“I was so afraid that the classes would aggravate old injuries,” Cully, 65, said, but the trainers were able to work around her ankle issues. “Before you decide on a gym, go try it two or three times. For me, a small gym with personal attention was a game changer.”
One day, in class, she contemplated a heavier weight in an overhead shoulder press but almost chickened out. A coach offered to spot her, and that’s all it took to break through both the weight and her mental blocks, she said.
Before you even begin a trial period or pay a visit, however, carefully read reviews of local gyms. This can help you learn which gyms roll out the welcome mat to new members and which might be more intimidating, catering to serious body builders, for instance.
Once you’ve found the right place, you can ask other members for help, even if you don’t know them. Even after 20 years of going to the gym and working as a trainer, Moore said, she still sometimes asks others nearby for feedback or tips. “Generally, if you ask people for help, they are happy to give it,” she said. “It flatters their ego, and they are thrilled to share their advice.”
And if you’re worried about being judged, Wieser said, this doesn’t reflect reality. “Many people new to the gym feel inadequate for lifting too light, or because they don’t know where things are,” she added. “Everyone is in the gym for themselves, and they aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing.”
BECOME A REGULAR
As you work up the courage to try a new gym, remind yourself that getting comfortable in an unfamiliar setting may take some time. Doing so will help you better ease into the routine, Moore said. “If you’re staying away because you’re afraid,” she said, “take the time to get comfortable and observe – maybe walk on the treadmill for a few days, to people-watch and learn.”
If wandering makes you uncomfortable, create a clear plan beforehand of what you want to do. Apps like CardioCast (for aerobic sessions) or Fitbod (for strength sessions) can suggest routines and exercises tailored to your goals. But make those goals attainable.
James Miller, a licensed psychotherapist in Reston, Va, and the host of the self-development podcast Lifeology Radio, concurred. “If you’ve never used a gym before, don’t go into it saying you want a six pack,” he said. “Instead, focus on getting into the gym for X amount of time, and X many times each week. Things can evolve from there.”
It’s also OK to consider yourself a beginner for as long as you want, Snell said, without feeling any pressure to make gains mentally or physically until you’re ready. “The same applies to returning to the gym after a long break,” she added.
More often than not, a gym experience will leave you pleasantly surprised, and overcoming your fears can be empowering. “With anything new, the price of admission is often feeling uncomfortable,” Moore said. “But once you’re into the routine of going to the gym, you’ll see yourself differently, and your habit will become a source of pride.”
By Amanda Loudin © The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.