Just thinking about going to the gym might make your heart race and sweat glands activate, but not in anticipation of the heart-pumping workout ahead of you. Instead, it may be feelings of stress and anxiety holding you back from going all-in with a regular gym routine.
If you’ve ever felt this way, rest assured that you’re not the only one. Pre-pandemic, gym anxiety was common, but now that we’re returning to gyms after an extended shutdown, many are feeling uncertainty and stress related to returning to the gym.
Even though these feelings may be common, they don’t have to keep you from starting or continuing your workout routine. Whether you’re just starting to work out, are returning to the gym for the first time in a while, or you feel this way each time you go, you can overcome these feelings and stick to a sustainable fitness plan.
In this article, we’re tackling the two obstacles that might have kept you from stepping foot in a fitness facility: gym anxiety and gymtimidation.
And if COVID is stressing you out, NASM has a free COVID fitness management guide that is applicable to personal trainers or fitness enthusiasts alike. You can find free monthly courses on the website as well.
What is Gym Anxiety?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes, like increased blood pressure. Feelings of anxiety can be brought about by the unknown, like the first day of school, the first day at a new job, or even going to a gym or fitness class for the first time.
Gym anxiety describes the anxiety felt around going to the gym or working out in a gym. Most people feel this way the first time they step foot into a fitness facility. The simple reason for this feeling: you don’t know what to expect.
The unknown tempts your imagination to run wild and your thoughts to go into overdrive: Will it be packed? Will everyone be more fit than me? Will the people be nice? Will they judge me for not being as fit as them? Will there be someone at the front desk to talk to? What do I do if I can’t find an employee? Will there be parking? What if I can’t find the entrance? If you’ve ever had anxiety over a new situation, you’ve likely entered this type of thought spiral with endless questions that cause the heart rate to continue to spike. It can be exhausting.
Another type of gym anxiety that some experience has to do with the unknown when it comes to your actual workout. This is especially true when someone else is writing your workouts, like a personal trainer or group fitness instructor.
I had these feelings regularly as a Division I student-athlete. As I sat in class, my stomach would do flips as I wondered how many sprints we’d have to run during conditioning. What kind of mood will the coach be in today? Will I be able to walk after lifting? Or brush my hair? I’d feel nauseated as I wondered. To this day, going to a new workout class still conjures up feelings of uncertainty and nervousness even though I’m experienced when it comes to working out.
Although both scenarios are quite common (anxiety about starting at a new gym, or anxiety about your scheduled workout), there are steps that you can take to overcome the anxiety and thrive in your fitness plan.
Strategies for Overcoming Gym Anxiety
So, how can you overcome gym anxiety? Here are five strategies that you can try today:
1. Know Before You Go
Since the main factor of gym anxiety is the unknown, you can regain control of the situation by getting prepared before you go. This is particularly helpful when you’re brand new to a facility. Check out the website to find photos, staff info (to help you recognize faces), and all general information about the gym.
This can help you figure out what questions you might have ahead of time so that you can either call ahead and ask or write them down to take with you when you visit. It can be helpful to know what the hours are, where to park, whether or not you need an appointment to talk with someone, what the COVID protocols are in the gym, and anything else you might need to know before coming in. This extra step will eliminate some of the stress associated with checking out a new gym for the first time.
2. Deep Breathing
Deep breathing can help your nervous system relax and bring anxiety symptoms down to zero. One of my favorite breathing exercises is called “box breathing”. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds (breathing out all air), and hold your breath for 4 seconds.
Once you get comfortable with the pattern, you can increase the time to 5, 6, or even 8 seconds to help you relax. Repeat for as long as needed!
Check this blog out for deep breathing tips.
3. Change Your Perspective
When I was learning techniques for overcoming nervousness when it came to athletics, public speaking, or anything else that can cause anxiety, I learned that perspective is everything. You can’t help your body’s response to the environment, but you can channel that response for your good!
When you feel those familiar nervous/anxious feelings, you’ll notice that they feel strangely similar to excitement. Heart racing, palms sweating, increased heart rate. I bet you’d feel those same feelings waiting at the airport for a loved one that you haven’t seen in a while! I know I have. When you feel those familiar feelings, instead of thinking about how anxious you are, say to yourself (out loud or in your head), “I’m so excited! This is going to be great!”.
It sounds cheesy, but this simple perspective shift is powerful in helping you harness those feelings to use them for your benefit. You’ll have a sparkle in your eye when you are greeted at the front door, and you can start your workout already having a little extra boost of natural energy thanks to the physiological response to stress. Who needs energy drinks, anyway?
4. Use the Buddy System
Going to the gym with a friend can be extremely comforting in a new situation. It’s even better if that friend already attends the gym that you’re joining! They’ll already know their way around and have the 4-1-1 on how to use the machines and how to navigate gym etiquette.
5. Ask your trainer or group fitness instructor about the game plan
While your trainer or group instructor may not give you the exact program you’re doing ahead of time, they’d likely be willing to help you set your expectations for what’s to come. Your trainer is likely to have mapped out a general progression plan for you based on your goals and where you’re starting. They can help you understand what phase of training you’re in, what types of exercises to expect, and how long you’ll be in that phase so that you can mentally prepare.
In group fitness, you’ll find that the workouts change often, but the style of workout is consistent. This can help you set your expectation for upcoming classes even though each class might vary in difficulty. If you’re considering taking a class at the gym, talk with the instructor to find out what to expect as you take their class. You might even come to the gym when the class is going on to scope it out and see if it might work for you. However, you won’t know until you try it!
How to Get Comfortable Working Out
When you’re just starting out, it’s best to start slowly to get used to your new routine. Here are some simple tips that you can follow to get started and get comfortable:
1. Get a tour of the facility and help understanding how to use all of the machines.
2. Hire a trainer. They’ll be able to guide you and offer accountability and support during your fitness journey!
3. Alternatively, workout with a friend. Bonus if your friend already knows how to put a great workout routine together!
4. Start small and build your routine over time. Commit to one or two days a week and build it over time. You don’t have to change everything at once!
5. Wear clothes that you feel comfortable in. This may seem random, but figuring out what to wear at the gym can be a huge source of stress for many people. I recommend wearing comfortable clothes that you can move in safely (without worrying about an article of clothing falling down, falling off, or getting caught in a machine). Don’t worry about the latest trends. You’re more likely to be consistent and confident if you’re comfortable!
How Common is Gym Intimidation?
Another term that you may have heard before is gymtimidation. Simply put, gymtimidation is the fear of working out in front of others who may appear more advanced or more fit than you. Gymtimidation is so common that a well-known gym franchise uses it as part of their marketing ploy!
The secret to overcoming gymtimidation is knowing that everyone in the gym is more focused on themselves than they are on you. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I simply mean that each person is probably there with their own goals in mind. It’s more likely that other gym-goers are wondering what you think of them than judging what you’re doing.
If gymtimidation has been a challenge for you in the past, it can help to smile and say hi to someone if you make eye contact. Kindness goes a long way in any environment, and if you get a smile back, the intimidation factor will be lowered. Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t smile back, though, they might just be in the middle of a tough set! You can also hunt down a relatively quiet area in the gym to get some privacy during your workout.
How to Maintain a Consistent Workout Routine Despite Social Anxiety
If social anxiety is keeping you from going to the gym regularly, then you might find that less-busy times at the gym are more appealing. Fewer people, and more space to yourself. You can also look for a smaller, more private gym in your area.
These types of facilities tend to be a little bit quieter, and you might even see the same 2-3 people regularly, making it more comfortable than facing strangers each time you go. If you’re having a tough day and don’t feel up to facing the gym, it’s easier than ever these days to stream workouts online. This is a great way to stick to your exercise routine without having to interact with others. Another option is heading outside for a walk or a run. Fresh air and exercise always help!
Does Exercise Help with Anxiety?
Research shows that exercise increases feelings of well-being and reduces anxiety. As you get comfortable in your workout routine, you’ll experience less anxiety related to going to your gym, but the physical activity will continue to help you manage and reduce anxiety that comes with other life situations!
Mindfulness Techniques to Help With Social Anxiety
Mindfulness is a helpful practice when it comes to issues with anxiety. There are some wonderful apps that you can download for guided mindfulness or meditation (like Headspace). If you’re looking for something simple to do while you’re at the gym, here are 3 techniques to try:
1. Focus on your breathing as you exercise. For example, inhale as you lower into your squat, and then exhale on the exertion as you push back up to the top.
2. Think about the muscle that you’re exercising. Doing rows? Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top and activating the lats and biceps.
3. Count your reps. This is pretty standard with a workout, but if your mind wanders you will lose count. Really focus on the count as you move and you’ll find that your mind is set free from wandering thoughts.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Anxiety. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety.
Aylett E, Small N, Bower P. Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice - a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Serv Res. 2018;18(1):559. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5