What are the causes and how to deal with them

In a perfect world, the hardest part of going to the gym would be your workout – not going through the doors. However, if the thoughts of navigating the equipment, being watched or judged, or even using the locker room cause anxiety, you are not alone.

Gym anxiety, also known as ‘gym bullying’, is common and can affect anyone – especially now, as people are returning to the gym after working out at home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read on for help identifying common triggers for anxiety in the gym, as well as learning more about coping strategies and alternative workouts.

At one point or another, you may have felt anxious, intimidated, or embarrassed about working out at the gym.

Maybe you are afraid of what others will think about your appearance or your abilities. Maybe you have no idea what to do or how to use the equipment, and you feel like people are going to judge you.

Maybe you’re worried that there are too many people, too many germs, or that the machines you normally use will be taken. Or maybe you feel uncomfortable in the locker room dressing next to strangers.

If you have felt this before, know that you are not alone.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders and affect nearly 30% of adults at some point. These feelings, which APA defines as “anticipation of future concern,” can manifest as muscle tension and avoidance (1).

Exercise benefits not only your physical health, but your mental health as well. Identifying triggers and learning the mechanisms for coping with anxiety in the gym can help you enter the gym with confidence, overcome those negative feelings, and reap the benefits of exercise.

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

You are a beginner

If you’ve never worked out in a gym before, or if it’s been a while, you may feel intimidated. Will everyone be in better shape than me? Will people judge me? What should I do and how do I get started? Called situational anxiety, these thoughts and feelings are triggered by unfamiliar situations (2).

You have changed your gym

Maybe you’ve been training in a gym for a while, but recently moved to a new location. Navigating the new layout, finding changing rooms and washrooms, locating the equipment you want to use, and getting into a new routine can all cause anxiety.

You are having difficulty using the equipment

Maybe you really want to use the leg press, but you don’t know how to adjust it. You are angry and embarrassed.

You have to change in front of others

If you come to the gym after work or plan to go elsewhere afterwards, you may need to change clothes before or after your workout. Doing this in a public locker room can make you feel uncomfortable.

The gym is really crowded

Especially given the pandemic, crowded indoor spaces can make many people uncomfortable. Post-COVID anxiety is a real thing, and the thought of coming back to life as we knew it before the pandemic can evoke feelings of fear and uncertainty (3).

You are a woman who wants to use the typical male weight room

Using the weight room can be intimidating as a woman, even if you’re not a newbie to the gym.

A study of 116 college-aged women found that a good portion of them were aware of the benefits of resistance training, but still did not participate in the recommended amount.

In part, participants cited time and effort as obstacles. Yet the researchers also found that feelings of judgment and intimidation, as well as a lack of knowledge about how to use the equipment, also contributed.

The study suggests that a women’s weightlifting class or a ladies-only space in a gym could give them motivation to move forward (4).

There are a handful of strategies that can help you overcome gym anxiety and work out optimally.

Do your research and get to know

The root of some anxieties is fear of the unknown. Therefore, getting as much information as possible in advance will help you feel more confident (5).

Start online by researching the facility, facilities, and course offerings. Then take a tour familiarizing yourself with the building and staff.

Start slowly

Don’t feel like you have to go all out on 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 path from there.

Hire a trainer

Working with a personal trainer for a single session can help you learn what exercises to do, how to perform them, how to set up equipment, and how to schedule your workouts.

Be specific about your needs; if you only want to do one session to familiarize yourself with the exercises and equipment, this is a very valid goal.

If you want to follow a program, mention it. And then, after working on this program for a month or two, maybe schedule another session to take your routine to the next level.

Go with a friend

Going to the gym with a friend or family member who knows their way can provide comfort, support, and advice. Plus, it takes some of the unknown out of the equation. Once you feel comfortable working out with your buddy, venture out on your own.

Try group fitness

If you suffer from social anxiety, group fitness classes might not be an ideal solution.

However, exercising in a group sometimes alleviates the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to do at the gym because you can follow the instructor or other practitioners. Once you feel comfortable and become a part of the group fitness community, you can experience better overall mental health (6).

Plan your time and workouts

Adopting a plan is not only essential for time management and efficiency, but also removes fear of the unknown.

If you know exactly which exercises you want to do and in what order, you can focus on your training, not on the uncertainty of what to do next. Also, if using the locker room is causing you anxiety, consider how you can avoid it by coming dressed to practice.

Use deep breathing and positive thinking

If you feel overwhelmed, focus on your breathing, focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. This type of breathing technique, in which you actively recruit your diaphragm and dilate your stomach, has been shown to reduce stress and cortisol levels (7).

You can also try to reframe your negative self-talk. For example, if you’re concerned about people judging your appearance, change your thinking from “this person thinks I’m tall and out of shape” to “this person is here to train and is focused on their own. actions ”.

It may seem over-simplified, and we understand that. Nonetheless, if you can start by noticing the negative thought pattern, and then over time take steps to challenge it and move on to positive self-talk, you may notice that you are able to channel more courage into breaking through. the doors of the gymnasium.

keep on going

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

Researchers have been studying the link between exercise and mental health disorders like anxiety for years. They found clear associations between increased physical activity and lower rates of anxiety and depression.

A 2015 study found that people with anxiety and depression spent a lot of time being sedentary, more than the average population (8).

Fortunately, exercise has been shown to help manage mental health symptoms. In fact, a recent study found that no matter what type of exercise you do, you will always experience the benefits of better mental health.

Its 286 study participants were split into high and low intensity exercise groups and a control group. People in both exercise groups showed greater improvements in symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to those in the control group (9).

But while high and low intensity exercise can improve mental health, you might be wondering how much exercise is needed to get results. Even a short, brisk 10-minute walk has been shown to reduce anxiety levels (ten).

While overcoming gym anxiety to get a good workout will only improve your mental and physical health, if you can’t get over your gym anxiety, don’t let go. this will prevent you from staying physically active.

If gym anxiety is interfering with your activity level, try these alternatives.

Train at home

There are plenty of fitness apps on the market today as well as workouts that you can stream to YouTube or other websites. Even if you don’t have the equipment, you can find something that works for you.

Train outside

If the weather permits, go for a walk or jog outdoors, play tennis or basketball, or go swimming. There are plenty of ways to stay active outside of the gym walls.

Find a smaller, more inclusive gym

If you’ve been trying out a large gym before, maybe a smaller, more inclusive gym would help you overcome your anxiety at the gym. A change of scene may be exactly what you need to be successful.

Anxiety at the gym can be a normal part of starting a new trip to the gym. Focus on taking small steps forward with coping mechanisms like planning to help keep your anxious feelings at bay.

If you find that your anxiety at the gym is debilitating or not improving with exertion, seek professional help.

Otherwise, take comfort in knowing that everyone at the gym was a beginner at some point. Everyone has walked through these doors for the first time or overcoming challenges. Your health and well-being is what matters most, and you belong where you feel most comfortable in your own skin.


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