There’s no denying that the gym can be a daunting place sometimes. Getting sweaty in a room full of strangers to the clank of weights and pumping music definitely isn’t within everyone’s comfort zone.
It can feel harder if you’ve taken time out from exercise, have recently joined a new gym or want to mix up your routine. With around half of us struggling with low confidence and self-esteem, it’s no surprise that gym anxiety can get in the way of your workout.
But where does this anxiety come from and how can you beat it? We ask the experts for their advice on how to deal with anxiety at the gym, so you can spend more time reaching for those gains.
What is gym anxiety?
It’s that feeling of worry that creeps in pre- or during your workout. Most people feel it when they step into a new gym for the first time. Not knowing where everything is, not being familiar with different equipment and not knowing who to ask for help plays into one of our biggest fears: the unknown.
It might also feel like other gymgoers are watching you or waiting for you to mess up – this is known as imposter syndrome and it’s very common. It can get worse when you’re trying new things or pushing yourself, like heading to a new class or picking up heavier weights.
Why exactly do we feel it?
A recent survey by Pure Gym found the main reasons we fear the gym floor include looking stupid in front of other people and feeling self-conscious about our fitness. A third of us find the squat rack the most intimidating area, with 64% of people confused about the weights they should use.
Women tend to be more affected by men when it comes to gym anxiety. Research from Penn Sate University revealed a gender gym gap driven by women’s worries around a lack of knowledge or confidence, feeling social anxiety at the gym and getting unsolicited advice from male gymgoers.
How can you get over gym anxiety?
Don’t let all this put you off. Really, the research just proves that whatever you’re most worried about, you’re not alone. The good news is, spaces are beginning to become more welcoming and inclusive, and there are ways to fight against gym intimidation.
“The fitness industry and social media have, up until recently, fueled these feelings of anxiety and self-doubt,” says Lashara Wood, personal trainer, and mindset coach. “By setting unrealistic body standards and fixating on aesthetics over mental well-being, this has put a lot of people off starting in the first place."
“But there’s a new narrative emerging, that’s more about moving to feel healthy and happy. Different body types and unique fitness journeys are starting to be normalized. We’re learning that one person’s ideal isn’t the same as the next. This is really important for anyone feeling like they’re inadequate or less than.”
From arming yourself with knowledge, to finding your community, there are some simple steps you can take to overcome gym anxiety and get the results you want.
8 expert tips on how to deal with anxiety at the gym
Recognize that gym anxiety is normal
Be patient and ease yourself in
Intentions and performance goals get you further
Have a plan, every time
Frame working out as an act of self-love
Use self-comparison to your advantage
Find your community
Let's explore these tips in a little more detail...
1. Recognize that gym anxiety is normal
“Anxiety is a physiological response and it’s very normal,” says Lashara. “When you mix an unknown space with unknown people, it’s no surprise that you’re a little anxious.”
Worry and nerves can also work to your advantage. Researchers have linked anxiety with intelligence, and while excessive worry isn’t helpful, a little means you care about the result and it can help you take precautions and exercise more safely.
2. Be patient and ease yourself in
Don’t do too much too soon. Build your confidence up slowly by gradually increasing the stakes. “Barely anyone is amazing at anything on the first try and confidence comes from repetition,” says Lashara.
“Go to the gym and just walk around or fill up your water bottle. Then go and do a really short workout. Next time, do your full workout, but take it easy. It has to be really, really achievable at first. So easy that you can’t say no to it.”
If you’re feeling anxious about picking up the weights, think about the main reason for that anxiety. “If you’re worried about getting injured, perform the movement with just your bodyweight or bands first to get the perfect form,” suggests Siobhan Hattersley, personal trainer and confidence coach.
If you’re concerned about lifting too heavy, don’t be afraid of starting small. “There’s nothing wrong with using the 1kg weights. I’ve been there myself.” And if in doubt, ask for help from a staff member or personal trainer – anyone who loves the gym loves helping others.
3. Educate yourself
You can easily take the edge off the gym anxiety by doing a little prep beforehand. If you don't know what a particular piece of equipment or machine does, have a quick research before you go.
“Most gyms have a virtual tour you can take or at least book in for an introductory session and get familiar with the space before your first real workout,” says Lashara. “That way, you’re not arriving cold, feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing.”
4. Intentions and performance goals get you further
Hands up if your current gym goal is all about the bigger booty/stronger shoulders/more defined abs. If you want to build your confidence and unlock more of the feel-good benefits of the gym, try focusing more on performance rather than aesthetics.
“When I first start with any of my clients, we begin with setting an intention – this could be about feeling stronger, feeling more empowered or feeling calmer,” says Lashara. “Then we focus on performance-related goals.
“A recent study found that women who focused purely on results in terms of how they looked in the mirror had an adverse relationship with exercise, versus women who set themselves goals relating to speed, stamina, strength and consistency.”
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to build muscle or lose a little weight, changing how you look can take a very long time. Making intentions based on how you feel and what you want to achieve can help drive you further, for longer.
5. Have a plan, every time
Wandering around the gym feeling lost will do nothing for your confidence. “Having a training program that’s designed for you will help you stay in your lane and tackle any workout anxiety,” says Siobhan.
“I’d always recommend working with a trainer who has experience helping you set goals and lifestyle habits. But if this isn’t doable, some gyms have free workout plans to use when you’re starting out.”
6. Frame working out as an act of self-love
Research shows that taking care of yourself outside the gym will help you realize your worth and power up your healthy habits. “Whether it’s having a long shower, wearing an outfit you feel really good in, or taking yourself for a walk to get coffee – these acts of love and self-care will help you realize you deserve to be treated well,” says Siobhan.
“Having your own back is also important when you’re pushing yourself. You can’t expect to succeed if you don’t believe you’re capable. I know it sounds cheesy but one thing I always say to clients (and to myself) is that you need to be your own biggest cheerleader.”
7. Use self-comparison to your advantage
Social anxiety at the gym is real, and it’s totally normal to compare yourself to others when working out. But, it can also increase anxiety and suck the joy out of exercise. While this is difficult to fight, comparison culture can have a positive side.
When we see what other people have achieved, it can help us want the same or set our sights higher about what’s possible. So, next time envy strikes, try to use it to feed your own confidence.
“Everyone’s in the gym for the same reason, self-improvement,” reminds Siobhan. “It’s just that some people are on chapter 20 of their fitness journey and you might be on chapter one. This is okay! Be inspired by the people ahead of you, know that it’s possible for you to get there and beyond.”
8. Find your community
The ultimate antidote to gym anxiety? Finding like-minded people you connect with. Yes, groups can be daunting at first but the beauty is that they’re made up of different people, increasing the chance that you’ll find someone you feel comfortable with.
“I speak from experience here,” says Lashara. “If you’re struggling with low confidence or anxiety, finding a community of people who make you feel good is a game-changer.” Whether it’s gym classes, sports or running clubs, or an online fitness community, exercising with others can max your motivation and help to keep you accountable.
“When you find people who align with your values and your goals, it's the most insane feeling. And it just strengthens your whole energy towards whatever you're doing.”
Life is challenging enough, we don’t need our workouts to be another source of stress. Whatever’s driving your anxiety, try to find movement that you enjoy. Remember that everyone struggles with nerves and worry – and they can sometimes help to motivate you further.
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WRITTEN BY: AMY BONIFAS
Amy is a health and fitness editor. She's led on content for brands like Livi and Vitality, and has written for Runner’s World, Happy Place and TechRadar. Her specialist areas are women’s health and mental wellbeing, and you can usually find her out walking her two dogs or trying to master new yoga inversions.
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