Working Through Gym Anxiety

It’s not unusual to feel uncomfortable in certain workout settings. For a long time I wouldn’t join a gym or take an aerobics class because of anxiety and self-consciousness. Upscale health clubs seemed to be full of fashion models and buff show-offs, people who walk naked from the locker to the hot tub looking as elegant as if wearing their wedding clothes. When it came to the actual workout, I was afraid to try to keep up with an aerobics class. Other times, I thought I’d like to work out with machines or weights, but when I had the opportunity, I found I was unsure how to use them.
Two anxieties seemed to be at work when I wanted to join a gym but couldn’t bring myself to do it. One was a lack of confidence combined with resentment of goodlooking people who might pass judgment. The other was nervousness about being physically able, through skills or strength, to do the workout: lift the weights, operate the machine, get through the class without keeling over. How can we cope with these anxieties, other than by giving in to them?
I eventually gained confidence by visiting many gyms over the years to test and re-evaluate my comfort level, and by asking many questions of friends who enjoyed gym workouts and classes.
If you feel self conscious in the gym or the locker room because of how others might see you, consider giving it another chance, and really look around at the people there. Every gym I’ve visited, including a large, upscale one, has contained a whole cross-section of ages, shapes, and clothing choices. It’s easy to focus on the buff people and their spandex, but look past them and see everybody else in their cotton T-shirts and shorts. Notice that they’re concentrating, and usually not looking at each other. Imagine the rewards they’re getting as they work toward their fitness goal. Those rewards can be yours.
No matter what you’re self-conscious about, remember that you’re a customer entitled to help and good treatment, and that you’re the equal of everyone in the gym: they’re all pushing for their own improvement, just like you.
Nervousness about physical abilities—keeping up with an aerobics class or being able to do everything on your workout plan—may or may not go away. First, try going into an aerobics class with the commitment to do the same one three times no matter what. Repetition will prove to you that you can get the moves down, and it only makes sense for it to take several tries. Then try different classes to see which ones you like the best, regardless of how hard it is to keep up, because now you know all it will take is practice.
That said, I’m still nervous every time I go to my regular exercise class—a boxing workout. Although I’ve acclimated to the workout, and am practically addicted to it, I’m still nervous before every class. Every time our first round of jump-rope starts, I wonder vaguely whether I’ll make it through the hour or whether I’ll do something so awkward that someone will get impatient with me. But when I look around, I see that everyone is awkward sometimes, and nobody is impatient.
The point is that even if nervousness (which we feel in so many different situations) doesn’t go away, we can do the activity anyway and benefit from it. If you’ve decided that challenging gym workouts or classes would make you healthier, I suggest three things. First, look around. Defeat self-consciousness by knowing that others feel the same way, that others accept and support you, and that they’re not really looking at you anyway—they’re concentrating on their own workouts. Second, work through nervousness and enjoy the results you earn. Third, don’t be afraid to ask for help or information that could help with either self-consciousness or nervousness. You’re entitled to it.

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