For those of us who didn't grow up playing sports or who have had a fraught relationship with our bodies and physical fitness, going to the gym can be a daunting task.
Gym anxiety is the very real phenomenon of feeling stressed or fearful when going to the gym. Often, it can prevent people from even going to the gym in the first place, and for those who make it through the gym doors, it can cause them to isolate themselves to a secluded corner, only doing the exercises they feel confident in (which might not be very many).
The folks over at Precor define gym anxiety as
that self-conscious, confidence-vanishing feeling one experiences when faced with an intimidating, embarrassing, or potentially awkward situation at the gym. It often involves feelings of fear of being judged based on one’s fitness level and/or uncertainty involving equipment or classes. [...] Gym anxiety is universally experienced by many exercisers. It does not discriminate between gender, size, strength, or how fit you are.
While gym anxiety can be brutal, experiencing gym anxiety doesn't have to be an ongoing issue, and there are simple strategies you can implement to overcome its challenges.
1. Go During Low Traffic Hours
Often, the most oppressive element of gym anxiety is the fear of being judged by others. Even if we aren't consciously concerned about what others are thinking, there's still this creeping tendency to avoid proximity with other gym goers, especially if they're particularly fit and show clear expertise in what they're doing.
If this is the case with you, choosing to go when there are fewer people in the gym can be hugely beneficial. If there aren't as many people in the gym, then there aren't going to be as many people in close proximity with you. You'll have more room to spread out, and you will feel that there are fewer eyes on you while you're exercising.
Personally, this is one of the reasons I go to the gym most days around 6:30 AM. The gym isn't very crowded first thing in the morning, I don't have any issues with getting the weights or machines I want, and the other people who are there are also regulars, so there's a sense of community.
2. Get a Battle Buddy
Speaking of community, having someone to workout with can also be hugely beneficial. If you have a friend or coworker with similar fitness goals to you, see if you can arrange to go to the gym together. Having a workout partner is similar to going to a party with a friend if you have social anxiety: have your person for the duration of the workout can give you an anchor and a focal point that can keep the gym anxiety at bay.
As an added bonus, when you work out with a friend, you also
- have a built-in accountability system, which can keep you consistent and on track with your workout goals
- have someone who can spot you when you want to try a new exercise or increase the amount of weight that you're lifting
- have the opportunity to integrate some healthy competition into your workouts and can push each other to continuously improve.
3. Create a Pre-Workout Routine
If there are activities that you do regularly that can be somewhat stress-inducing, one of the most sustainable ways to manage that stress is to ritualize the desired behavior. Creating a trigger that makes you feel ready to workout and pairing that trigger with a positive stimulus (something that makes you feel good) can help to make that initial moment of just getting to the gym feel less daunting, which will break the seal on the gym anxiety.
For me, I mix up a pre-workout supplement and drink that, and then I get in my car and listen to my workout playlist at volumes that are probably louder than is healthy. Still, between the buzz of the supplements entering my bloodstream and the high octane beats of my playlist, by the time I get to the gym I'm alert, awake, and ready to move. It's my own amp-up routine and it does the trick for me.
For you, perhaps setting out your gym clothes the night before and treating yourself to a post-workout protein smoothie that you love is what will do it for you; maybe you prefer to start your workout with a yoga sequence that makes you feel great. Whatever the ritual may be, figuring out something that triggers your desire to workout and associates that with a positive feeling can be huge for diminishing gym anxiety.
4. Keep a Workout Journal
When I first started going to the gym with any frequency, keeping a workout journal was a huge benefit for me. It helped me on two levels. First, I could plan out my workouts beforehand and write down what muscle groups/ exercises I would focus on. That way, I didn't get to the gym and feel overwhelmed about deciding what to do; when I got to the gym, I knew what to do because I already had it in front of me in writing.
Second, as I worked out, I would write down how much weight and how many repetitions I was doing of each exercise. In the short term, this helped me to gauge how much work I was doing per workout and conceptualize the areas of my workout in which I could push myself a little harder. Long term, however, it was invigorating to see my progress week-over-week. If I started to feel like I was getting stuck or wasn't seeing the results of my hard work in my physique, I could just look back at where I was a few weeks earlier and be reminded of how far I had come already.
This also helped as I got more competent in the gym with the notes I could add in as I went. Eventually, I would add in comments like "bringing my elbows in closer to my sides takes some of the pressure off my shoulder," which served as helpful reminders for improving my form and performance in subsequent workout sessions, which made me more confident in what I was doing.
5. Workout with a Certified Personal Trainer
In many ways, working out with a personal trainer may feel like exposure therapy since this is basically the equivalent of being shoved into the pool and having to figure out how to swim. If gym anxiety is rooted in the fear of judgment from people who are in better shape, working out with a personal trainer may seem like an extreme version of this. After all, it's literally a personal trainer's job to know what the hell they're doing, and most are in fantastic shape.
You may go into it with the fear that your personal trainer is going to mock you for being weak or for not getting in enough grams of protein each day, but if you actually give it a try, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise.
Most certified personal trainers focus on introducing you to exercises, and the proper way to do those exercises so that you can meet your fitness goals without injuring yourself. Personal trainers aren't meatheads who want everybody to be as ripped as they are; instead, they're active people who enjoy fitness and want to educate others on healthful, beneficial workout routines. In general, they can also provide some guidance about nutrition other strategies for maximizing your workout times.
Even if working out with a personal trainer feels especially daunting at first, by the time you've finished your first couple of sessions with them, you'll (a) have a great ally in the gym, and (b) you'll be armed with useful knowledge that can empower you to feel more comfortable at the gym.
6. Focus on the Process, Not the Results
This one may seem counterintuitive, but in the long run, it's the step that's going to have the biggest positive impact on your fitness experience.
We often go to the gym thinking we're there to get bigger biceps, a smaller waist, broader shoulders, pecs we can bounce, the kind of bubble butt that threatens the seems of our jeans when we bend, or the kind of six-pack that every "totally not photoshopped, hashtag no filter" influencer on Instagram has.
The truth of the matter is that 95% of the influencers we aspire to as fitspiration don't look in real life the way they do in photos. For those who do, they're inheritors of genetic advantages and often decades of dedicated gym time and dieting.
If you get focused on the results, you'll quickly become discouraged. You can put in weeks and weeks of work in at the gym, and you may see the needle barely move on the scale or your clothes may look like they're fitting the same in the mirror. Very quickly, these observations can leave you feeling unmotivated. It's easy to convince yourself that your anxiety is valid and that going to the gym is pointless.
By keeping your focus on the process– on simply showing up to the gym and putting in the work– you're less likely to feel unmotivated and you're investing in creating a system that will generate massive returns in the future. All those weeks where the results may not seem to be there are just building you up little by little to the week when those results will be there. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear describes this process with an example of an ice cube. If you put an ice cube in a room that's -10°F and increase the temperature one degree per day, you're going to go 42 days without seeing any changes in that ice cube. But, on that 43rd day, you're going to cross from 32°F (0°C) to 33°F, and suddenly that ice cube is going to start melting. It doesn't mean that nothing happened for the prior 42 days; it just means that it took up until that 43rd day for the results of the previous 42 days worth of change to become visible.
The same is true for working out. You may not see the results for a while, but eventually you'll hit the tipping point and they'll become impossible to ignore. However, if you obsess about the fact that the ice cube isn't melting for 42 days, you may get discouraged and stop turning up the temperature before that 43rd day. Instead, if your focus is to turn up the temperature one degree each day, you'll inevitably get the desired end result even though your focus was instead on the process.
What Works for You?
Keep in mind that some of these strategies may be more beneficial for you than others, and that's alright. Figure out what works best for you and then double down on those efforts. All of our brains are wired differently, and what works for me may not work for you.
It's also important to keep in mind that chronic anxiety is a medical condition, and if you're consistently experiencing anxiety– at the gym 0r otherwise– talk to your doctor. In my own experience, the above strategies helped quite a bit, but it wasn't until I started taking an antidepressant that I really felt like I was able to maximize these strategies. SSRIs may not be the best solution for everybody, but if you legitimately need them, don't be a