A Beginner’s Guide to Combating Gym Anxiety
You’ve set up the direct debit, dusted off an old pair of trainers, and armed with your shiny new membership card, it looks like you’re ready to kick-start your gym journey. So why do you feel so nervous?
Gym anxiety is pretty common, and doesn’t discriminate between genders and fitness levels – whether you’re an uber-fit marathon runner trying a different style of training, a super strong bloke who’s made the swap from home to gym workouts, or a new mum keen to get fitter and healthier, you’ve probably felt those pre-workout jitters.
In an age of Instagram workout videos and fitness models, feeling insecure about your lack of confidence with machines and equipment, or your own stamina and strength, is understandable – but just like with all new experiences (e.g. starting a job, taking part in a new social activity), the more you’re exposed to it, the easier it will get.
But just pushing yourself to go anyway, despite the uncertainty, is easier said than done, right?
Consider this your Gym Anxiety Toolkit – some tips and tricks for the nervous newbie on riding through the fear so that you leave your first few gym sessions feeling empowered and confident, irrespective of how far you ran or how much you lifted.
1. FOCUS ON YOU
Lots of people say that one of the main reasons that they struggle to go to the gym is because they’re worried that other people are judging them – whether that’s for their fitness levels, appearance, or lack of experience with using the equipment.
To get the most out of the gym, it has to be a much more insular experience. This is about you and your goals, so try to keep putting the focus back on you, rather than the people around you.
Mentally Re-label Negative Thoughts
When a thought like “everybody is judging me” comes into your head, call it out for what it is – just a thought with no proof of truth, not a fact that has evidence to back it up. Jumping to conclusions based on negative thoughts is known in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as cognitive fusion, and to counter it, you just need a bit of cognitive defusion.
A simple but effective mindful practice, cognitive defusion simply involves recognising that “everybody is judging me” is just a negative thought, and altering it to something like “everybody is focused on themselves – I am just anxious because this is a new environment for me, and so I feel slightly out of my comfort zone”.
By simply re-framing your thoughts, you are ridding those anxious and unhelpful thoughts of their elements of certainty and physical power. Swapping irrationally worrying about what other people think, for recognising that this is just your mind’s anxious reaction to a new experience, is a great way to steer the focus of your workout away from the people around you.
Block off External Stimuli
Worried that people talking to you might let your mind wander back to anxiety, and away from your workout? Helpfully, there are loads of physical things you can do to make this less of an issue.
If the distraction of other people makes you feel self-conscious, then keep your mind busy, and block off the outside world. Going to the gym at off-peak times is a great way to do this, as there will be fewer people there, and so less of a chance of distraction.
Could really do without the approach of a well-meaning but alas, annoying, fellow gym-goer keen to chat? Pop on some headphones – the bigger the better. Listening to music or an audio-book can be great solutions for keeping your mind busy, and definitely make it less likely that you will be disturbed.
2. DO THE PREP
Walking around the gym trying to figure out what to do and how to do it can feel like a lot of on the spot pressure. Preparation is key – plan your workout before you go, but make sure it’s realistic.
So many of us are guilty of turning down the gym induction – but why? It’s a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with the machines and ask a qualified professional any questions that you might have. They will often also give you a fitness plan, so you can go into your first session with some idea of what you should be doing. On top of all of this – it’s generally free!
You can also do your research online. Social media is a great resource for workout inspiration, but just make sure that you’re watching videos of people with similar fitness levels to you – or at least content that is easily adaptable. Going to the gym armed with a workout is great – but only if it’s realistic. It should be challenging but not impossible, so start off easy and build yourself up. It’s much better to leave your first session feeling like you could have actually tried out something a bit harder, than completely lacking confidence and never wanting to go back.
3. LIGHTEN THE PRESSURE
Sure, they aren’t for everyone, but if you’re starting from scratch when it comes to exercise, and don’t really know how to begin, then how about heading to a fitness class? They are often included in the price of membership and can be a great way to learn some moves and circuits that you can then mimic in the gym, and just generally get your fitness journey off to a good start.
They might be a little bit daunting to go into, but many people find that because everybody is doing the same thing, they feel less consumed by anxious worries about people judging them. It’s a great option for anyone keen to lessen the pressure of planning workouts and doing everything correctly – you simply have to turn up.
If you’ve got the means, then getting yourself a personal trainer is another brilliant way to get the most out of your first few gym sessions, and take the planning out of your hands. With sessions tailored completely to your abilities, and guided one-to-one, you won’t have as much scope to worry about what machines to use, and how to use them, as you will have someone guiding you through it all.
Don’t fancy engaging too much with the fitness professionals? Bringing a friend along with you can be a great motivator, as well as a distraction from any obtrusive thoughts. It also means you’ve got someone to share the load of preparing workouts with, as well as an ally to let you know if they think you’re doing anything in not quite the right way.
Now, walk into that gym with confidence – you’ve got all the tools you need to have a great workout, that leaves you feeling super proud of yourself.