It took a layoff and breakup on the same day last summer to motivate 28-year-old Meghan Ragni to take control of her health. In the bleak months that followed her boyfriend of two years announcing, “We need to talk,” Ragni embarked on the time-honored tradition of getting over rejection via self-improvement. After losing 30 pounds, and lowering her blood pressure, she knew it was finally time to overcome one last hurdle: “I thought, ‘I need to go farther. I need to do something that’s really going to scare me,’” she says. That meant going to the gym.
Ragni had avoided working out since college, when she’d visit her campus gym on occasion and leave quickly due to embarrassment. “I hated it,” explains Ragni, now an elementary school teacher. “I felt like everyone was watching me and judging how well I was doing. Or they were looking at my body and what I was wearing.” She was frustrated that she didn’t know how to operate the weight machines and felt too ashamed to ask for help.
Finally, last fall, she found a way to get over her gym-timidation. A new boyfriend helped her design a workout that included free weights and dumbbells, and Ragni, who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, spent a couple hours on YouTube watching instructional videos. Armed with a cheat sheet she’d made of stick figures demonstrating proper lifting technique, she signed up for a membership at her local Planet Fitness.
“When I got there, I almost froze,” says Ragni, who wrote about her journey for the health and fitness blog Charmed Wellness. “I had to tell myself, ‘Even though you’re afraid, you have to keep going.’” Ragni now puts in an hour of weights and a half-hour on the elliptical machine most weekdays. “I’ve actually begun to enjoy my workouts, and I get through them without crying or having to run out of the gym,” she says.
Building Muscle, Breaking Down Fears
We all have our excuses for avoiding workouts, but “gym intimidation” can be one of the most powerful in preventing people from exercising. “So many people are worried about being judged and say, ‘I need to get into better shape before I go to the gym,’” explains Michelle Lewis, a Salt Lake City-based counselor who specializes in helping patients overcome their barriers to weight loss. “I reply ‘How do you think those people got into such good shape?’”
“We’re all worried what everyone else is thinking. But no one is paying attention. They’re focused on themselves.”
She says patients often express self-defeating thoughts, such as “I’m going to fail” or “I’m not good enough,” before they even make it to the gym. “Or, they’ll look at the person next to them on the treadmill who’s running an eight-minute mile and think, ‘Why should I even bother walking?’” she says.
The fear of working out with others can be so extreme it might result in people exercising less overall. “People who suffer from social anxiety might be worried [about] appearing awkward or receiving funny looks from others, whether it’s at the gym or even running on the street,” explains psychologist Cheri Levinson at Washington University in St. Louis who’s studied the link between anxiety and social exercise.
To treat such anxiety disorders, counselors often prescribe a combination of exposure and cognitive behavioral therapies that challenge one’s thinking. For example, instead of assuming, “These people are staring at me,” a patient might be prompted to ask, “What evidence do I have that these people are staring at me?” The exposure component might include taking small steps to build up to an actual gym visit. “You’d start with the least-feared scenario, such as wearing gym clothes to a therapy session, then going to the gym but not exercising, and then maybe going but trying an easy exercise,” says Levinson.
Finding Your Workout Comfort Zone
Therapists say many people find their stride once they visit the gym a few times and realize their fears are overblown. “We’re all worried what everyone else is thinking,” says Lewis “But no one is paying attention. They’re focused on themselves.” Need a little nudge to get in the door? Here are some tips to make the gym experience less scary.
1. Take a group class.
“There’s safety in numbers, and you quickly realize everyone is different ages and body sizes and is struggling together,” explains Justin Rubin, group fitness manager at Equinox fitness center in Los Angeles and trainer for Daily Burn’s True Beginner program. You’ll probably also discover you’re not the worst one there. “It’s encouraging because there’s always someone behind you and someone better than you.”
2. Dress comfortably.
Don’t wait until you lose weight or have sculpted arms before you buy yourself some nice workout clothes. “There are many reasonably priced options so find something that fits you now and is flattering,” advises Lewis. Avoid clothes that are too big and make you feel like you’re swimming in fabric. The same goes for restrictive clothing that might make you feel self-conscious.
3. Own the back row.
It’s perfectly OK to plop down your Pilates mat near the door, claim a spin bike in the back row of the studio, or a treadmill that’s in the darkest corner of the gym. “Go early and stake out your own little space, if that makes you more comfortable,” says Rubin. “Put your towel on your bike, listen to your own music beforehand and get in your own zone.”
4. Go to the gym during off-hours.
Ragni manages her anxiety by going to the intimidating male-dominated weight room in the afternoon, when it’s less crowded. “A room full of guys who look like they know what they’re doing would have prevented me from going in the past,” she says. Now, she takes comfort in seeing the same handful of people each afternoon. Her progress keeps her coming back. “The first day I could barely lift a six-pound weight, and now I can lift a 10-pound weight. That makes me feel great because I was able to push through my fear and earned it,” she says. “We all have to start somewhere.”
Fearful of weight room haters? If a recent Reddit post about one 19-year-old’s “demoralizing day” at the gym is any indication, those gym snobs are few and far between. You’re much more likely to encounter fellow fitness fiends who will cheer you on. After sharing his story, that down-and-out Redditor got more than 1,000 messages of support — including one (allegedly) sent by bodybuilding champ and ‘governator’ Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Originally posted March 2015. Updated January 2016.