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Dear Dr. Bell, I really need to start going to the gym. I know this sounds pathetic, but I’m feeling embarrassed and insecure. I don’t want people being cruel or judging me because I don’t look like I belong in a gym. Do you have any tips on helping with gym anxiety?
I’ve heard variations of your story from the beginning of my career. One of the most popular statements is “I want to lose weight before going to the gym,” for the very same reason you provided. If you have never been in a gym before, the “unknown” can be the hardest part; not knowing how to use the equipment, what workouts you should perform, the gym rules, etc. Then the other factor is the fear of people judging you. If you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin, how can you expect to feel comfortable around the “gym freaks?”
Before I give you some tips that I believe will be helpful for you, I want to give you some hard truths.
First, and foremost, no one cares about how you look or what you are doing. While it may feel like every single person in the gym is watching you, I can assure you, they are focused on themselves. Everyone in the gym is there for a purpose, with a limited amount of time. They are focused on getting their workouts in and then jumping back into their crazy daily lives’.
Second, every person in that gym started from somewhere. Like you, they are there to improve their health and fitness. They had their own journeys and struggles to get where they are today. You are not the first person to enter a gym that is overweight or the first person to enter a gym feeling insecure, with deep rooted fears of being judged. Just like with every other aspect of your life, it does you no good to compare yourself to others. You have no idea what someone has gone through to get to where they are. Unless you are using it as personal motivation (I’m a competitive guy that thrives on competition) comparing yourself to anyone else in the gym is unproductive. Focus on why you are there, what you are trying to accomplish and compete only with yourself.
Here are some tips I have found that can help,
#1: Working with a Personal Trainer can be extremely beneficially. If you know next to nothing about working out or putting together a fitness program, they can get you on the right path. Even if you only chose to do a few sessions with a trainer, they can show you how to use all the machines, how to put together a program, take you through fitness testing to determine your baseline and give you information on good eating habits.
# 2: Group Classes are another great option. Again, you won’t have to worry about where to start and there are many options to choose from, such as boot camps, spin classes, Zumba, etc. Get to class early and pick a spot in the back if you are nervous about the class. I would encourage you to walk up and meet the instructor and explain to them your situation of being a new gym member. You will find they are extremely kind and welcoming, which will put you at ease before the class begins.
#3: Make a plan before going to the gym. Write down your workout you plan on doing before you get started. That way, you have a sense of purpose before getting to the gym. This will avoid the “deer in headlights” sensation that could come over you, by being overwhelmed and uncertain walking in the gym without a plan. It will also keep you accountable, as well as track your progress by writing down how many sets and weight you use for each exercise.
#4: Bring a friend along with you! If you need a little push to get you through the door your first time or two, bring a friend for support. You will feel more relaxed and better able to focus on the reason why you are there.
#5: Do research before choosing a gym. Don’t jump in the first gym you see. Do research and read reviews. Sometimes the mom and pop gyms can have a friendlier atmosphere than a typical gym chain, with a greater sense of community.
#6: While you will see a lot of people in short shorts, spandex and other intimidating athletic apparel, it is important you are dressed comfortably in the gym. You don’t have to dress in baggy clothes, but you don’t have to squeeze into outfits that make you uncomfortable and body conscious either. Find what makes you comfortable and start there!
#7: Avoiding peak gym hours can also be beneficial. I try to avoid the gym at peak hours because it’s less crowded and the equipment I want to use is more likely to be available. Less people, can mean less intimidation for you. It’s also nice to run into the same people everyday. For the most part, gym members are great people that will encourage you along the way! Of course, there will be the occasional “meathead” slamming weights, or an anorexic looking female that’s been on the treadmill for 6 hours. You will come to find amusement in the stereotypical gym types you see on occasion. They are few and far between. People in the fitness industry want to see you succeed and to live a healthier lifestyle. They will cheer you on as you reach your goals.
#8: You can always begin your fitness journey by running or biking outdoors or starting a home program with free weights or dvds if the gym is too much for you. After a few weeks, then make your way to the gym after you feel more confident.
You do not sound pathetic, this is a question I receive often. Making the decision to improve your lifestyle is an admirable one. Don’t let your fears hold you back from doing what you need to accomplish.
The most important thing for you to do is get started. The most important thing for you to remember is why you are getting started. You know you need to get in shape to live a higher-quality of life for yourself and your family. While taking the first step is difficult, I can assure you after your first couple of trips going to the gym, your fears will be greatly diminished. You will begin to see and feel the progress you are making and it will become addicting. Remember, the only thing you need to focus on is becoming the best version of yourself and the only person you should compete against is who you were yesterday. Nothing else matters!
Dr. Jim Bell
CEO of the IFPA