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How to Overcome Gym Anxiety

Updated on May 19, 2012
Is gym anxiety sabotaging your fitness goals?
Is gym anxiety sabotaging your fitness goals?

Regular exercise can reduce stress and the daily anxieties of life. That’s a well-known fact. Ironically, though, many who would benefit most from regular exercise avoid it altogether, often due to the anxiety they feel when considering exercising at the local gym.

Sometimes called “gym anxiety”, this type of generalized anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways, but in general it results in an overall feeling of fear or nervousness related to exercising in public. Gym anxiety is caused by a variety of factors, but the primary reason is the tendency of most people to compare themselves to others.

Author Francois Lelord stated it simply in his bestselling book Hector and the Search for Happiness: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness”. Even more, comparing yourself to others often results in sabotaging thoughts and self-defeating behaviors that can gravely undermine attempts to pursue a healthy lifestyle.

As gyms tend to attract more than a fair share of fit-bodied individuals, those who are overweight, obese, or simply a bit out of shape, may draw comparisons between their own bodies and the bodies of the seemingly "perfect people" they see around them. Feeling out of place is a major cause of anxiety, and one that often triggers a flight response. As such, this kind of comparison-making is a common cause of failure for those who suffer from gym anxiety.

Lack of knowing what to do at the gym when everyone else seems to already have a routine can similarly cause flight-response inducing anxiety. With a seemingly endless array of free weights and weight machines, medicine balls, kettle bells, dumbbells, barbells, ropes and pulleys and the like, the gym floor can be an incredibly daunting place for a beginner, or even for someone returning to the gym after many years.

Regardless of the source of anxiety, though, using one or more of these five strategies to overcome gym anxiety before it strikes may help you stick to your plan to get and stay more fit:

  1. Be (and love) yourself. When you go to the gym, do it for you, no one else. Own your body as it is, even as you commit to changing it. Love yourself as you are, even as you strive to better yourself.
  2. Set goals and focus on them. Consider what is important to you – losing weight, gaining muscle, improving balance, or increasing endurance – and define exactly what you expect to achieve in each area. Then set a time frame for doing it. Without personal goals you may find yourself trying on bits and pieces of others’ routines, which may lead to more and more self-defeating comparison-making.
  3. Arm yourself with knowledge. Most gyms offer a free orientation session for new members, and though most members fail to take advantage of this perk it is the best first step to getting to know what to do. Besides that, check out these books to learn the exercise basics: The Men's Health Big Book of Exercises or The Women's Health Big Book of Exercises. And if you have the money, consider finding a personal trainer.
  4. Visualize your success. What does success look like for you? Close your eyes and picture it in your mind’s eye. Spend time in your mind imagining what will be different for you once you achieve your goal. Then, next time you find yourself comparing yourself to others at the gym, bring the focus back to yourself. Recall your vision and let the feeling of your inevitable success resonate within you, replacing the otherwise nagging anxiety.
  5. Assume you are not alone. Much of gym anxiety can be attributed to the feeling that you are somehow different than everyone else. Truth told, even those at the gym whose bodies you would deem as perfect have their flaws and self doubts – that is why they are there! Despite the common belief that the gym is a place for perfect people, it is simply a place for people like you, who seek physical fitness as a means to living a long, healthy life.

About the author

Brian Schwarz is an award-winning journalist whose career was derailed by health-related complications caused by super obesity. Having fought his way back to health, losing 165 pounds in the process of what he refers to as his "fit life journey", Brian now lives life to the fullest. An activator by nature, he is now on a mission to help others live their fullest lives as a life coach, writer, educator and motivational speaker. Follow him on Twitter @MyFitLife2Day and read about his journey at MyFitLife2Day blog.

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    • brianschwarz profile image

      Brian Schwarz 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      Thanks for the comments everyone!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I Definitively have gym anxiety. I appreciate your hub, great job!

    • jcdelfinoiii profile image

      J. C. Delfino III 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Very true about the reduction of stress, as David Myers pointed out in his faboulous book Psychology in Everyday Life that the "movement" movement (exercise) is one of the 10 key items to being happier(pg. 264). Thanks for the great read.

    • profile image

      miriam 5 years ago

      Hi Brian!

      Keep up the good work! You're awesome. Let's talk soon.