You may have heard that exercise can help anxiety but what if you feel anxious about going to the gym in the first place?
If you feel anxiety at the gym, you’ll need a strategy to overcome it. Don’t worry, it won’t be too difficult if you take it slow, step by step!
Whether or not you suffer from anxiety, the gym can feel intimidating.
There’s so much equipment and there are so many people that already seem to know exactly what they’re doing. Anxiety at the gym is totally understandable.
What if you screw up? What if you hurt yourself or make a scene? No wonder you’re scared of the gym!
With all this in mind, it’s natural for people to have a fear of the gym.
But there are ways you can help conquer gym anxiety and feel more confident in the gym. Being prepared ahead of time can help ease anxiety at the gym.
Take it slow and build confidence to go to the gym slowly.
What Is Gym Anxiety Disorder?
Gym anxiety is similar to social anxiety. It’s that anxious, tense feeling you get before facing an event — in this case, the gym.
Some of the symptoms of gym anxiety include:
- Nervous and restless before going to the gym
- Feeling panicked
- Sweating and rapid breathing
- Worries about going to the gym taking over your thoughts
- Feeling weak and tired
- Feeling nauseous
- Stomach pain or other GI issues
- Trying to avoid or make excuses not to go to the gym
It’s pretty obvious that just one or two of these symptoms alone could make it seem like a workout is a bad idea. No one wants to work out when they are already sweating and weak and have a sore stomach. So you just end up not going.
How Do You Get Over the Fear of Going to the Gym?
After all that you may be wondering “how do I get over my fear of going to the gym”? The pre workout anxiety that overwhelms us and causes us to give up before we start.
Well, there are some actionable steps we can take to try and overcome gym anxiety and being scared to go to the gym.
As someone with anxiety, I know that being fully prepared and aware of the scene I’m going into as much as possible can go a long way to calming my fears.
We can cover the different scenarios that might be causing you to experience pre workout anxiety.
Gym Intimidation (aka Gymtimidation)
One of the biggest aspects of the fear of going to the gym is the intimidating feeling you get when you feel like everyone there will be more fit, more knowledgeable and just plain better than you.
This can be an intimidating feeling and cause you to overthink the ways you might embarrass yourself or look, well… stupid!
Trust me, half the people there had to overcome these same thoughts at least somewhat when they started.
It might be cliche but everyone starts somewhere. Knowing this isn’t super helpful for overcoming the fear of going to the gym though.
Women might experience an extra layer of gym intimidation. Popular gymtimidation memes and gym memes reveal that men staring at women while they workout is a real thing.
It feels icky and strange and like you can’t just focus on your workout.
So, while I can’t go into the gym with you and flip off any dude who decides to stare inappropriately (note to men: there’s no appropriate way to stare at women anywhere) — I can tell you that it’s slowly been dwindling as more awareness spreads about how this makes women feel (UNCOMFORTABLE).
If you ever feel awkward, sexually harassed, or even just uncomfortable, ask to speak to a gym manager.
Staring at and approaching gym members is not ok. You can even write an email or leave a written note anonymously. I know that’s what I would do, on account of the anxiety and all.
How to Not Feel Embarrassed at the Gym WITH ANXIETY
In order to combat the potential to feel embarrassed at the gym let’s address the main reasons people are worried they’ll embarrass themselves:
- Unsure how to use the equipment
- Worried you’ll mess up or break equipment
- Fear of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing
- Unsure what workout to do
- Unsure how to perform certain lifts
There are some super simple ways we can be prepared to go to the gym so embarrassment feels less like a risk.
Get a Tour of the Gym
Even if you’ve already signed up at your gym, ask for a tour. Wear your regular clothes if you want because this is just a preliminary scope-out of the gym and not a workout.
Call (or email/message if phone calls make you anxious) and ask when the gym is the least busy to schedule your tour.
Ask them if you can have a demonstration of the main gym equipment. If you’re nervous about going to the gym alone, bring along a friend or your partner.
Practice Some Moves Ahead of Time
Nothing beats being prepared to help avoid being embarrassed at the gym.
Do your research, read up on how to perform certain movements and watch videos if you can.
Practice lifting with whatever you have at home. Whether that’s dumbbells or food cans and laundry detergent. Use a broomstick to practice any barbell exercises (this is a good idea to practice form anyway!).
Here’s a great video tutorial from Molly at Girls Gone Strong. I highly recommend their videos and how-to-articles (and not just because I’m certifying with them *wink*)
Have a Workout Plan
Going in blind can increase gym anxiety and fear of embarrassment of not looking like you know what you’re doing in the gym.
I’ve written a comprehensive guide all about How to Choose a New Workout Routine based on your goals.
There’s a menu to read about your specific goal if you already have one in mind, but if not, read through and see what resonates with you. Choose your goal and then you’ll be able to choose a plan.
If you want to jump right in though, I have an awesome, free Full Body 30 Day Fitness Challenge you can follow.
There’s a downloadable printable calendar for it as well. It includes active recovery days and 10 different workouts 🙂
Here’s a general guide for strength training:
- For muscle endurance go for 10-15 reps
- Building nice rounded, full muscles (hypertrophy) do 6-8 reps
- For increasing strength perform 1-5 reps
Don’t get caught up thinking you have to stick to the same rep range for every single exercise though. You can totally choose to work with different rep ranges for any body part.
Or, you can warm up your muscles with a higher rep range before getting into the lower rep ranges with other exercises.
One thing I will say here is that strength training is really your best bet to transform your body, no matter your goal.
Strength training is the key to a fast metabolism and lasting, long term fat loss. No, not cardio. Not HIIT and nothing else, but good old fashioned pumping iron.
You can read more on How to Increase Your Metabolism.
You can also check out these workouts:
- Shoulder and Legs Pyramid Workout
- Kettlebell HIIT
- 15 Minute Jump Rope Workout (I created this for OpenFit)
If you’d like something more personalized, I offer a customized 12-week plan for whatever your goals are.
How Can I Get Comfortable at the Gym?
So, once you’ve done your tour, practiced at home, and planned your workout and you’re ready to try going to the gym — how do you get comfortable while you’re there?
No matter how much you plan and prepare, anxiety at the gym can still creep up when you face the real-life action of being there. Don’t worry — there’s a plan for you!
Getting comfortable at the gym takes a little adapting.
Anxiety at the gym can stem from the issues we’ve already discussed but even if you’re prepared with a workout plan and you’ve practiced at home, you can still get overwhelmed by all of the people on the machines and having to move back and forth through the gym to do your workout.
Here are some tips on how to set yourself up in the gym and what to do for your first workout.
- Choose a simple, straight forward routine
- Write your routine down in a journal or use my free workout planner pages (find them in the free resource library along with workout calendars and tons of other goodies)
- Try to stick to using one or two types of equipment (a couple of pairs of dumbbells and exercise bands for example)
- Find a corner of the gym or a single bench where you can work out in one place
- Gather all of your equipment and bring it to your area
- Perform your routine, keeping track in your planner
- Remember to return all of your equipment to where they belong!
After you complete this workout, you’ve started building a pathway in your brain that says “hey, this gym thing isn’t so bad”. Facing your fears is incredibly empowering.
Use Exposure Therapy To Get Over Anxiety at the Gym
In fact, something called Exposure Therapy is used to help people with anxiety to face their fears and overcome them.
Facing your fear of the gym is a healthy way to lessen the effects of pre workout gym anxiety and anxiety at the gym itself.
The American Psychological Association explains that allowing yourself to give into your fears causes them to get worse. Facing your fears will help you overcome them for the long term.
Avoiding the things that make you anxious, including the gym, might work in the short term to alleviate the awful feelings that anxiety can cause, but it won’t ever help you work through the problem.
Typically, a psychologist or therapist would work through a real phobia with you. However, assuming that your fear of the gym is not a gym phobia to the extent that you break down completely, you can try some of these same techniques in exposure therapy for yourself.
Here are a couple of ways to practice exposure therapy for quelling anxiety at the gym:
- In vivo exposure: facing the fear in real life — physically going to the gym (like in our gym tour we talked about earlier and on your first few visits in your set-up area)
- Imaginal exposure: imagining your fear — vividly imagining yourself at the gym and what you’d be doing
When you practice these methods of exposure therapy, you can choose how to go about it:
- Graded exposure: grading the most difficult to mild fears of the gym that you have and facing them in order from the mildest to the most difficult. This is the idea behind going for your visit, then proceeding to a specific workout area with minimal equipment, then you can graduate to using more equipment and moving around the gym.
- Flooding: Facing the fear of the gym all at once by starting with what is most difficult and then working down (the opposite of graded exposure)
- Systematic desensitization: practicing relaxation exercises while facing your fears and associating your fears with the relaxation.
There are several reasons why exposure therapy is a great option for you if you have gym anxiety.
- Habituation: After a while, your fear of the gym will decrease along with the reaction symptoms
- Extinction: Exposure can help eliminate the association between the gym and the symptoms of fear and anxiety that you had.
- Self-efficacy: Exposure helps you feel like you are capable of managing your fear and anxiety and that you hold the power to control how you respond to going to the gym.
- Emotional processing: You can become more comfortable with the gym and learn new feelings and experiences that are attached to going to the gym instead of the negative ones you had before.
For more information on facing fears, I cover a lot in my free mini-course How to Get Motivated AF. You’ll find helpful worksheets for reframing negative thoughts too.
What Times Are Gyms Empty?
If it helps you feel better, contact your gym to find out when gyms are the busiest and when they are empty. Try to pick a time that suits your preference.
There are some general times that gyms tend to be more empty but it will differ depending on if your gym is near a lot of office buildings or schools.
This will dictate whether people are coming to work out on their lunch break or right after work as well as after school hours that will cause an influx of teens around 2:30 or 3:30 depending on the school.
Here are some guidelines for the least busy times at the gym:
- Weekday lunch or early afternoon (depending on whether there’s a lunch break crowd)
- Later at night, after 8pm (check your gym’s hours for closing time)
- Mid to late afternoons on the weekend
What Should A Beginner Do at the Gym?
If you’re a complete beginner and your anxiety comes from being a newb in the gym, knowing what to expect at the gym and what to do can help. Some aspects of what to brush up on are:
- Gym etiquette
- What to take to the gym
- What to eat before going to the gym or if it’s better to exercise on an empty stomach
- What about gym classes? (and gym class anxiety?)
What is Gym Etiquette?
Gym etiquette is basically the dos and don’ts of how to act at the gym. Beginners might be worried about what they should or shouldn’t do. Every gym and its culture will be different but there are some basics to be aware of if you’re a beginner at the gym.
- Re-rack your weights: put your equipment back where you got it
- Don’t hog a bunch of equipment: use only what you need
- Ask to work in with people between sets: if you want to use a piece of equipment but someone else is using it, just ask to “work in” with them. This means that during their rest, you do your set and vice versa. If someone asks you to work in with them, this is what they mean.
- Try not to grunt or groan: making too many strange noises is distracting and obnoxious
- Get off of equipment between sets: unless you’re using one bench for your whole workout, get off of any machines between sets if your rests are long enough. If you’re doing 1-2 minute rests, don’t worry about it but 3-5 minute rests, you should move away.
- Don’t curl in the squat rack!: use the squat rack for squats and lunges or other lower body movements! Don’t perform lighter upper body movements in the squat rack. Shoulder presses are fine too if there’s no half racks available.
- It’s ok to ask for a spotter: if you need help with heavier lifts, be sure to ask a spotter. It’s common practice. Just ask someone who appears friendly and isn’t in the middle of a set. If they are wearing headphones and looking grim, leave them alone!
- Try not to drop weights: it’s totally ok (and even necessary!) to drop heavy barbells when deadlifting for example, but it’s best not to make super loud noises or drop and bounce weights if you don’t really need to. I usually see attention-seekers doing this and the loud bang usually scares me. New, anxious gym goers probably aren’t going to do this, but it’s something I wanted to mention as part of gym etiquette.
- Don’t talk on your cell phone: no one wants to hear you on your bluetooth during their workout. Turn off calls or step out of the gym area to answer.
- Don’t text, take pictures, or post on Instagram while sitting on equipment: you’ll look like an ass. And I promise you, it still counts if you don’t tell everyone about it.
- Wear gym clothes: this seems obvious but people do sometimes wear clothing that isn’t really suitable for the gym. I’ve seen jeans, sandals, people wearing… not a whole lot. Use common sense.
Of course, there’s many people who don’t care about gym etiquette. These are mostly guidelines although, many of the above will actually be written into the rules of your gym.
You can ask to see the rules or find them on the gym’s website if they aren’t posted anywhere in the gym itself.
What to Take to the Gym
What to take to the gym is really a matter of personal preference. There are some things you’ll probably want to have that you might not think of if you are a beginner at the gym.
- A lock: a padlock or combination lock for your gym locker
- A towel or two: a smaller one for sweat while you workout. You might want this if your palms get sweaty while lifting weights or if you want to dab your face (especially if you’re the type to keep your makeup on) or the back of your neck. A larger towel is good to have if you plan to shower at the gym. Gym’s often have towels available for a fee.
- Toiletries: if you’re going to shower, bring your shower stuff, including makeup if you need it.
- Water bottle
- Your workout planner (remember to grab your free pages)
- A pen
- Workout sneakers: indoor only shoes for workouts. Gyms will want you to change from your outdoor shoes.
- Your fitness tracker if you use one
Pin me to your Mental Health board!
Is it Better to Go to the Gym on an Empty Stomach?
Some people with anxiety feel like they just can’t eat when anxiety is in full force.
This is because of something you’ve probably heard of called the Fight or Flight response (also known as fight, flight or freeze).
This response is caused by certain stress hormones, mainly adrenaline, that help you to escape from stressful events.
Read more about Stress, Hormones, and Weight Loss
It’s an evolutionary response that isn’t super helpful when it comes to anxiety. The other downside to this when it comes to eating before going to the gym is that these stress hormones cause non-essential bodily functions like digestion to stop working properly.
If your digestion isn’t working properly, it will not feel good to try and eat much before working out. While it’s definitely better to eat before going to the gym, you can go to the gym on an empty stomach if eating seems impossible.
You can also try a smoothie, although, this is going likely still cause stomach issues if you’re feeling anxious. Eating when you are full of stress hormones can actually lead to inflammation and eventual food intolerances due to gut permeability (leaky gut).
That’s as much as I’ll go into leaky gut and stress but it’s something I’ll probably write more about in a future article.
One option for you in this case is to drink some BCAAs — branched chain amino acids. This will help protect your muscles, aid in recovery, help you produce ATP (for energy), and keep you from feeling fatigued due to lack of protein.
Eat a meal an hour or two post-workout to refuel.
Don’t try to eat straight after working out for the same reasons mentioned above. For your post workout meal be sure to get in about 30 grams of carbs, 15 to 25 grams of protein, and a little fat.
Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Protein
What About Gym Classes and Gym Class Anxiety?
If your plan is to do a guided gym class, this can be a helpful option. If you grab a solo corner in the back and follow along, it can take the pressure out of having to think about what to do for your first few workouts.
I do recommend following a solid strength training plan eventually though, so you can personalize it and work towards your own specific goals.
If you have social anxiety due to gym class, try going with a friend instead of going to the gym alone for the first time.
Taking a friend to a gym class can help you build confidence in the gym and is a great entry-point to making the gym a regular habit.
You’ll start associating going to the gym with fun memories and emotions instead of the anxiety and fear you had before.
Does Exercise Help Anxiety?
Research has found that high levels of social anxiety are associated with avoidance of individual sports that may be observed by others. In other words, the gym can feel like hell for people with social anxiety.
“Indeed, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008) concludes that regular physical exercise protects against the onset of anxiety disorders and anxiety symptoms regardless of age, sex, or medical condition.” (source)
People with anxiety are known to be more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, a disease that is preventable with proper diet and exercise.
However, there’s a ton of research that shows how amazing working out is for people with anxiety and depression. Building self-efficacy is key to getting over the social anxiety aspect of working out in a gym.
That’s why I’ve suggested practicing at home and reading up, watching videos, and being prepared.
The more you feel capable, the more self-efficacy you can build. Going to the gym for the first time and even for the first few times, sticking to your own area at a time that’s not too busy will help you take steps to building confidence in the gym and become more assured of your abilities.
Can’t I Just Work Out at Home?
You can definitely work out at home! As a sufferer of anxiety myself, I have a fully stacked home gym that I escape to.
There are times that a busy gym just isn’t something I want to do. When I’m feeling all peopled out, I don’t have it in me to go out in public.
However, doing this too much increases the risk of isolation and loneliness that so many people with anxiety and depression can go through.
It feels warm and comfortable to isolate, but when you resurface, you’ll have lost or damaged friendships and getting back into the real world will feel strange.
I encourage you to build your confidence and self-efficacy by actually going to the gym sometimes if it’s something you really want to do.
Clearly, going to the gym can be a really positive and healthy experience. If going to the gym with anxiety is something you just can’t imagine, remember to take it slow, one step at a time.
Just getting through it once, even if you are just going on a tour or for an exercise class with a friend, you’ll hopefully build self-efficacy and confidence in the gym.
Keep going, you can do it!
If you ever feel like chatting with me about this, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.