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Strategies to Overcome Gym Anxiety

In a perfect world, the hardest part of going to the gym would be your workout. Not walking through the doors. However, if thoughts of navigating the equipment, being watched or judged, or even using the locker room provoke anxiety, you’re not alone. Gym anxiety, also called “gymtimidation,” is very common and can affect anyone. Especially now, as people are returning to gyms after working out at home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read on for help identifying common triggers for gym anxiety, as well as to learn about coping strategies.

What is Gym Anxiety?

At one point or another, you may have felt anxious, intimidated, or embarrassed about working out at the gym. Maybe you’re afraid of what other people will think of your appearance or abilities. Maybe you have no idea what to do or how to use the equipment, and you feel like people will judge you. Maybe you’re concerned that it will be too crowded, too germy, or the machines you normally use will be taken. Or maybe you feel uneasy in the locker room dressing next to strangers. If you’ve ever felt this way, know you’re not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders and affect almost 30% of adults at some point. These feelings, which the APA defines as “anticipation of a future concern,” can manifest as muscle tension and avoidance. Identifying the triggers and learning coping mechanisms for gym anxiety can help you walk into the gym with confidence, conquering those negative feelings and reaping the benefits of exercise.

What can Trigger Gym Anxiety?

Like any type of anxiety, gym anxiety can be complex and individualized, but here are some common scenarios that might trigger it:

  • You’re a beginner. If you’ve never worked out at a gym before, or it has been a long time, you may feel intimidated. Referred to as situational anxiety, these thoughts and feelings are provoked by unfamiliar situations.
  • You’ve changed gyms. Navigating the new layout of a gym, finding the locker room and restroom, locating the equipment you want to use, and getting into a new routine can provoke anxiety.
  • You’re having trouble using the equipment. This can happen when you’re trying to use a specific machine, but you can’t figure out how to adjust it. You get flustered and embarrassed.
  • You have to change in front of others. If you come to the gym from work or have to go somewhere afterward, you’ll more than likely have to change clothes. Doing this in a public locker room makes some uncomfortable.
  • The gym is really crowded. Especially given the pandemic, crowded indoor spaces can make people uneasy. Post-COVID anxiety is a real thing, and the idea of returning to life as we know it before the pandemic can evoke feelings of fear and uncertainty.
  • You want to use the typically male-dominated weight room. Utilizing the weight room can be intimidating as a woman, even if you’re not a newbie. Research has found that women don’t partake in resistance training in part because they feel judged and intimidated. A lack of knowledge about how to use the equipment also contributed.

Tips to Overcome Gym Anxiety

A handful of strategies can help you overcome gym anxiety and get in a great workout.

Do Your Research and get Acquainted

The root of some anxiety is fear of the unknown, so gaining as much information as you can ahead of time will help you feel more confident. Start online by researching the facility, its amenities, and class offerings. Then, go in for a tour, familiarizing yourself with the building and the staff.

Start Slowly

Don’t feel like you must go all in during your first visit to the gym. Pick a small goal that you’re comfortable with, spend 10 or 15 minutes on a cardio machine or just stretch, and call it a workout. Then build your way up from there.

Hire a Trainer

Working with a personal trainer for even just one session can help you learn what exercises to do, how to perform them, how to set up the equipment, and how to program your workouts.

Go With a Friend

Hitting the gym with a friend or family member who knows their way around can provide comfort, support, and guidance. Plus, doing so takes part of the unknown out of the equation. After you feel comfortable working out with your buddy, venture out on your own.

Try Group Fitness

Exercising in groups sometimes alleviates the anxiety that stems from not knowing what to do at the gym, as you can follow the instructor or fellow exercisers. Once you feel comfortable and part of the group fitness community, you may benefit from better overall mental health.

Plan Your Time and Your Workouts

Going in with a plan is not only key for time management and effectiveness but also takes away the fear of the unknown. If you know exactly what exercises you want to accomplish and in what order, you’ll be able to focus on your workout, not the uncertainty of what to do next. Also, if using the locker room gives you anxiety, figure out how you can avoid it by coming dressed to work out.

Use Deep Breathing

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, center yourself on your breath, focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. This type of breathing technique, in which you actively recruit your diaphragm and expand your stomach, has been shown to lower stress and cortisol levels.

Keep Going

The more you go, the more confident you’ll become and the easier stepping foot inside will be. It’s natural to want to avoid the gym if it provokes anxiety, but if you find coping mechanisms that work for you and stick with it, you’ll see improvement over time.

The Bottom Line

Gym anxiety can be a normal part of starting a new journey at the gym. Focus on taking small steps forward via coping mechanisms like planning ahead to help keep your anxious feelings at bay. If you find your gym anxiety is debilitating or isn’t improving with effort, seek professional help. Otherwise, take comfort knowing that everyone at the gym was a beginner at some point. Everyone walked in those doors for the first time or overcame challenges. Your health and well-being are what matter most, and you belong where you feel most comfortable in your own skin.

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