Some people hate heights. Others hate snakes or spiders. For me, it’s the treadmill that gets my heart racing and puts knots in my stomach.
It started about four years ago when I enthusiastically pressed the speed buttons on a treadmill at my college’s gym — only have my machine roar to life way faster than expected. Frantically trying not to face plant, my pumping arms knocked my phone off the console and my headphones, wrapped around my tank top, yanked the straps violently to the side. After that near-wardrobe malfunction, let’s just say I have some serious trust issues with treadmills.
Running on a ‘mill is an effective workout for sure — but I’ve always been terrified that my klutzy ways will lead to a humiliating and painful wipeout. And beyond the awkwardness, falling off the machine could be dangerous, too. Treadmill-related accidents are fairly common. In 2013, approximately 24,000 people visited emergency rooms with injuries sustained from treadmills. Plus, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 30 (30!!) people have reportedly died from treadmill-related accidents in the past 10 years.
But should the random tragedies of an arguably small fraction of gym-goers (or my own lone snafu) really validate my personal ban on the treadmill? I didn’t want to avoid treadmills forever. Winter is coming and soon I’ll have no choice but to move my running workouts indoors. My solution: Figure out how to mend the relationship before it was beyond repair.
Me vs. the Treadmill
I knew treadmills and I couldn’t just kiss and make up — we needed some professional help. That’s how I found myself discussing phobias with Brian Iacoviello, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“By imagining my nightmare scenario play out, I could target my physical symptoms of anxiety.”
“When we’re talking about fears or phobias, we’re talking about a real, strong anxiety and fear reaction to a specific situation,” said Dr. Iacoviello. Check, I thought to myself, feeling my stomach churn at the thought of my treadmill speeding up uncontrollably. “Fear tells us we need to watch out for danger,” he continued, noting that this is a healthy thing.
“The problem is that with anxiety or a phobia, this response is being trigged by a stimulus that isn’t really a danger to your safety or your life,” he explained. “We might all feel a little bit of fear when we stand on the Empire State Building. But not all of us have a height phobia. Someone with a height phobia might not even consider going up.
So maybe I didn’t have a full-blown phobia, but I was definitely fearful of something that probably wasn’t a legitimate danger. How could I muster the courage to get back on the belt? Dr. Iacoviello had a few suggestions. His first piece of advice: Start using my imagination to conjure up my worst gym fears. “Your body will start to feel some anxiety if you imagine it,” he said. “Practice being with that and tolerating that instead of avoiding it.”
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By imagining my nightmare scenario play out, I could target my physical symptoms of anxiety when I did eventually get on the machine, said Dr. Iacoviello. When people feel anxious, they also typically experience muscle tension in their neck, back or abdomen, he explained. “Because of that abdominal tension, we take more shallow breaths. You want to take slower and deeper breaths. That can actually serve as a signal to your body: Oh boy, we are less tense now, we are probably less anxious.”
Ready to Run
Armed with Dr. Iacoviello’s advice, I was prepared to give the treadmill another chance. So one Friday morning, I hit up Barry’s Bootcamp in Chelsea for a “full-body” class. Basically, if a bootcamp, a treadmill and a rave had a baby, it’d look something like Barry’s. Low red lights, thumping beats and sweating bodies — and notoriously tough treadmill sprints (eek) — are the hallmarks of this national fitness chain that also happens to be a celebrity favorite.
On my train ride to the studio, I started visualizing what it would feel like to sprint on a treadmill. Thump, thump, thump — my heart was jumping around in my chest just thinking about upping the speed or incline on my machine. But instead of gripping the handrails for dear life and quick-stepping close to the console, like I usually do, my imaginary me lengthened her stride and let her feet float to the center of the belt. Inhale, exhale. I told myself I was in control. Clanging subway doors jolted me from my fitness fantasy. It was go time.
Entering the dimly lit studio, things started to get real when I walked up to my designated machine. My stomach started flip-flopping just as I expected. I breathed deeply. Gritting my teeth and staring down my reflection in the mirrors in front of me, I placed my feet on the sides of the belt, clutching the handrails and pressed START. The strap whooshed beneath me. Feet, don’t fail me now, I thought, stepping on. After about three minutes, my hands unclenched from the handrails and I let my legs swing freely beneath me.
Turns out getting started was the hardest part — after that, I hardly had the brainpower to psych myself out. As our instructor Noah guided us through sprint intervals and several hills, I settled into my stride and gave my best tough-as-nails glare to my own reflection in the mirror.
There was no veering side-to-side, headphone tangles or phantom speed changes. The moving strip beneath me wasn’t out to get me. My fearful thoughts were my own undoing. During the cool down, as I slowed to a brisk trot, my unease crept back as my tired legs wobbled and my mind snapped back to reality. Inhale, exhale. I grabbed a hand wipe to swab down the treadmill at the end of the workout. No wipeouts, no injuries. No deaths! It wasn’t love at first run, but I’d consider a second date.
Have a fitness fear you have (or hope to) overcome? Let’s hear ‘em in the comments below!