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Understanding gym anxiety: Why it's common and how to manage it

If you want to overcome gym anxiety, the first step is understanding it.

Gym Anxiety: Why It's Common and How to Manage It | Juniper

Does the idea of walking into the gym have you breaking out in a sweat? You're not alone in feeling this. In fact, there's even a new buzzword for gym anxiety — "gymtimidation" [1].

Feeling gym anxiety is actually a pretty common experience for most people. It's not the workout routine that has your heart racing, but instead the thought of going to the gym has you riddled with gym anxiety. We all know how good exercise is for us, in fact, it's crucial to our health and life.

Research shows exercise is 1.5 times more effective at managing depression compared to counselling or medication when dealing with the stress in our day-to-day lives [2].

We know the gym can be one of the best ways to start getting in shape, kickstarting weight loss or even building a regular movement habit, but gym anxiety might be stopping you from taking the plunge. If you want to overcome gym anxiety, the first step is understanding it.

We've dived deep into gym anxiety to understand why it's common and how to best manage it with gym anxiety tips.

What is gym anxiety?

Gym anxiety is feeling anxious or nervous feelings when you think about going to the gym or working out at the gym. A gym can feel like an intimidating place for a few different reasons.

  • You might worry about being judged by other gymgoers
  • You might feel insecure about how you perform exercises compared to regular gym people
  • You might feel stressed about not being able to use some of the machines or perform exercises correctly
  • You might be concerned you're not as fit or strong as the other people, or how you look when exercising

As a new gym goer or returning to the gym after a long period away, you might be feeling anxious or worried about starting or re-starting your fitness journey at the gym.

What can trigger gym anxiety?

There are many reasons and factors that might be triggering your gym anxiety. The biggest of them is rooted in fear.

You might fear the unknown, not being familiar with the equipment or how to use it, or even fear not understanding gym etiquette and making a mistake. That fear can also be about being judged for being less athletic or inexperienced. The fear of being embarrassed or mocked by fellow gymgoers can be a powerful driver of gym anxiety.

A lack of confidence in your abilities, fitness level or body image can all contribute to your gym anxiety. You may feel anxious from a past negative gym experience where you felt embarrassed or criticised by other people at the gym or a personal trainer.

The physical space of a gym can create social anxiety too, particularly if it is overcrowded with people working out. People with existing anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, might feel overwhelmed at the thought of going to the gym or feel they need more space for their workouts.

A combination of all of these factors can lead to gym anxiety. The good news is that there are things you can do to help you overcome gym anxiety.

Does going to the gym help anxiety?

Kind of. We know that exercise can significantly help with lessening the symptoms of anxiety, with results seen in around 12 weeks [3].

The general sentiment is the more exercise the better for people with anxiety. The real key is finding something you can stick to and repeat until it's a regular habit. Some prefer cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) whilst others might find that resistance training and the repetition and focus needed for resistance training suits them better.

Exercise triggers a complex physiological response in the body. A person's stress level decreases after exercise by releasing hormones like adrenaline, as well as endorphins to leave you feeling oh-so-good after a workout.

Regular physical exercise helps maintain neurotransmitter levels including serotonin and dopamine, both of which help to decrease the risk of mood disorders like anxiety and depression. It can also help to break the pattern of negative thinking or ruminating on negative thoughts that are common for people with anxiety.

Generally speaking, most research shows that any movement is positive for mental health from hitting the gym to going on a regular walk or swimming a few laps. One of the ways to reduce anxiety is to find a style of physical movement you enjoy and can do regularly.

Is it a women's weightlifting class? Outdoor group fitness classes? Calisthenics or resistance training? Running? Whatever you choose to do, keep in mind it may take a little while to feel less anxiety or better well-being.

How do I overcome anxiety at the gym?

So how do you get over gym anxiety? The best place to start is to start slowly. As the saying goes 'Rome Wasn't Build in a Day', it takes time and persistence is form a fitness routine and gradually work towards overcoming gym anxiety.

There are a few things you can do to start working on beating gym-related anxiety.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

This tip is so important we've listed it 3 times. You can ease some of that gym anxiety simply by feeling more prepared. Research the gym ahead of time so you get an idea of what to expect from the gym.

Look them up on Instagram or give them a call and ask for a staff member to perform a walk-through or introduction session to make going to the gym for the first time a little less intimidating. What gym equipment do they have? Can you attend group classes first to feel comfortable before you tackle the weight room?

2. Get some expert help

You wouldn't try to fix a car without any training or experience, and starting a new fitness routine is the same. A personal trainer can be a great support in creating a workout routine and helping you get used to the gym.

As well as correcting your form on certain exercises, a personal trainer can help you set achievable fitness goals and help you get comfortable on the gym floor and with your new routine.

Personal training can also help with establishing regular habits and accountability to keep showing up for your personal and mental health.

3. Find a workout buddy

If you're not sure about using a personal trainer, you can always go to the gym with a friend or partner. Your first time at the gym is always a bit easier if you have a friend to support you, and even better if they already happen to be gym members.

Exercising at the gym with a friend can help stave off any feelings of stress or anxiety and also keep you accountable.

4. Pick the right time to go

Gym intimidation can be made worse when the gym is overcrowded and all the equipment is in use. Try to pick an off-peak time to hit the gym when it's a little quieter to help you build confidence.

Generally speaking the busiest times are weekdays before work (6am-9am), after work (4pm-7pm) and during the day on weekends (10am-2pm). Try to opt for a mid-morning, lunchtime or late-evening workout to give you a little more time with the equipment.

5. Be kind to yourself

Starting a new workout and setting fitness goals is a big step for any person. You are bound to feel a little anxious or nervous, so it's important to be kind to yourself and remember that everyone starts from somewhere.

Try to focus on the positive steps you are taking to improve your mental health and take each gym visit one day at a time.

The main thing is to keep showing up and carving out regular gym time to work out, even if you still feel intimidated or anxious. It sounds cheesy but showing up is the best way to overcome gymtimidation. It's also worth remembering that rarely is anyone paying attention to anyone but themselves!

Weight loss should be a holistic journey

Exercise alone isn't a weight loss solution. Sustainable weight loss requires a holistic approach like Juniper’s Weight Reset Programme which combines weight loss medication as well as personalised health coaching and lifestyle changes. Juniper uses medically-backed science to help you find your confidence (and keep it).

Most people feel uneasy about starting a workout program and it takes time to feel comfortable with any new change, including a new gym. You might even feel worse from those first few days as your muscles aren't used to it. Remember this motivational quote that's all over Pinterest and TikTok:

In 2 weeks you'll feel it, in 4 weeks you'll see it, in 8 weeks you'll hear it. It takes 1 day to decide to start.

Image credit: Julia Larson / Pexels