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Gymtimidation Is Real, Here’s How to Overcome It

For many people, one of the biggest hurdles they’ll face on their fitness journey is actually stepping foot in a gym. Researchers have even studied this phenomenon. “We found that people who didn’t feel they were good at exercise or who were afraid of others seeing them exercise were more likely to avoid the gym,” says Cheri A. Levinson, PhD, whose 2013 study examined fear and anxiety related to social exercise.

The good news is that there are ways to manage that intimidation and start to feel comfortable at the gym. Follow these expert steps to make the gym a place where you feel like you belong (because you do).

1. DON’T OVERTHINK IT

Our insecurities come from caring too much about what others think of us. “People see themselves as too awkward, too weak, too skinny, too fat and too inexperienced, to name a few,” says Kevin Swan, a personal trainer at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York City. “So they think everyone will be watching them and laughing at them, and that’s just too scary a thought” to enter the gym.

But don’t let your thoughts rule your life and keep you from trying new things. Realize that everyone has a weakness — not just you. “You go to work on making yourself better and continuing to improve once you do,” Swan says.

As for what everyone else is thinking, they most likely aren’t thinking about you because they’re too busy focusing on their own issues. “Nobody cares where you’re starting from or what you can and can’t do,” Swan says. “Get out of your head and stop overthinking things.”

2. FIND YOUR BEST GYM

Before you even consider joining a gym, do some research. “Figure out what route you want to take — strength training, running, boxing, etc.,” says Sal Butler, an Equinox Tier X coach. Read online reviews, and talk to friends, family or co-workers to figure out what features appeal to you.

Before landing on a specific gym, take a tour or request a day pass so you can get a feel for the place, people and overall layout. “If you don’t like the style, people or vibe you get when you walk in the door, you won’t feel comfortable working out there,” says Josh Fly, fitness director at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers.

3. PICK THE RIGHT PROGRAM

If you’re not used to the gym, haven’t really lifted weights or don’t know the first thing about the machines, the entire experience may seem foreign. The list of questions we have about getting in shape and navigating the gym seems endless when you’re starting out. “And once we get in our minds that there’s so much to learn, it often seems too intimidating to even start,” Swan says. This is when a trainer, friend or group environment come into play. Here are three options for getting started:

  • Hire a trainer. “A trainer provides you with three things that are a critical part of any successful exercise program: knowledge, encouragement and accountability,” Swan says. When you have a trainer, he or she will help you with form and map out a plan to efficiently and effectively toward your goals. Also, your trainer will  hold you accountable, which means you’ll be more consistent with your efforts.
  • Go with a friend. A friend can provide support and accountability like a trainer. Just be sure to pick the right friend. You want someone who will help you achieve your goals, rather than someone who will only focus on themselves or, worse, try to get you to go after their goals, too.
  • Attend group classes. Classes offer several benefits: You often aren’t the only new person so you can feel more at ease. You can meet new people who share a similar mindset. You’ll have a instructor cheering you on — and you may find the playlist makes it more fun.

4. SEEK HELP

If you’re still anxious and it’s causing you distress, you may want to see someone. “It’s a pretty common fear, and one that can be helped,” Levinson says. She recommends looking for a psychologist or therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy  or who uses exposure therapy. Explain that you have fears around exercise, and ask whether he or she has experience helping others in your situation.

Using exposure therapy, you’ll slowly work through your fears. You may begin by driving to the gym and simply going home, then going to the gym in workout clothes and walking around but not exercising. Finally you might go and run on a treadmill or lift weights, Levinson explains. “You’ll see progress in three or four sessions,” she says.

Once you realize that you’re not alone in this and start going regularly, you’ll likely find that you can’t imagine not going to the gym. Go ahead and give it a try!


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