You’ve wanted to join a gym for ages, but the thought of being the new kid on the strength blocks makes your palms sweat. You worry everyone will be sporting six packs, lifting heavy weights and sharing high-fives – not to mention watching and judging you.
It’s normal to experience some form of anxiety about joining a gym. One US survey found that about half of the 2,000 people it polled felt such “gymtimidation”. Another survey found that women in particular report having concerns about working out at the gym.
The reasons for such fears are myriad, including not feeling fit enough, poor body image, a lack of knowledge about fitness equipment or terminology and social anxiety.
“The sense of intimidation layers over top the fact that you’re entering a new environment,” says Meghan Wieser, a certified strength and conditioning coach in Maryland.
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But by avoiding the gym, you’re selling yourself short. Having access to trainers, equipment and community can all lead to a longer, healthier life. And if you developed the habit of going regularly, you might even find that you enjoy the gym life.
“Start by reminding yourself that everyone at the gym has had a first day,” Wieser says, “and that fitness is for everyone.”
By reframing your relationship with dumbbells, treadmills and sweaty rooms, you can overcome gymtimidation and begin a lifelong fitness habit.
Overcome your fears
Latoya Shauntay Snell, a food and fitness content creator in Brooklyn, has been going to the gym for a decade, visiting three times a week for power lifting and cardio training. Yet even now Snell experiences some anxiety entering a gym, especially if she is travelling and using a new facility.
“I’m a black woman of size, and when you ask people what they picture when they think of an athlete, I’m not it,” she says. “So it’s easy to find myself in a space of intimidation at a gym.”
But Snell, who is 37, has long since learned to manage those feelings, she says. One of her favourite strategies for overcoming anxiety about going to a new gym is to spend the first week there learning the lay of the land.
“Do some upfront research into what type of equipment and exercise you would enjoy and would benefit you,” Snell says. “Also get to know the staff through a gym tour.”
Pam Moore, a personal trainer in Colorado, recommends trying a free personal training session if it’s offered. “Granted, they are trying to sell you a package, but it’s a great opportunity to learn how to use the equipment properly,” she says. “Or if there are group classes offered, maybe that’s a less intimidating place to start.”
You can make the new gym experience more manageable by learning one thing at a time, too, rather than trying everything at once. “It’s like renting a car and having to learn where every button is all at once – it’s overwhelming,” Moore says. “The same thing applies to the gym. Come up with one small marker for success, like mastering one machine or move.”
Some gyms offer trial memberships, in which potential members get several one-on-one sessions to familiarise themselves with exercise movements, equipment and terminology. This worked for Patricia Cully, a 65-year-old retired information-technology professional from Maryland. Cully spent years trying to train on her own, only to repeatedly injure her ankle. Then, a trainer she was working with failed to modify her workout accordingly, and she injured it again.
After much prodding, a friend persuaded her to do a trial period at a new gym. Two years later, she is now a regular.
“I was so afraid that the classes would aggravate old injuries,” says Cully, but the trainers were able to work around her ankle issues. “Before you decide on a gym, go try it two or three times. For me, a small gym with personal attention was a game changer.”
Before you even begin a trial period or pay a visit, however, carefully read reviews of local gyms. This can help you learn which gyms roll out the welcome mat to new members and which might be more intimidating, catering more for serious body builders, for instance.
Once you’ve found the right place, you can ask other members for help. Even after 20 years of going to the gym and working as a trainer, Moore says, she still sometimes asks others nearby for feedback or tips. “Generally, if you ask people for help, they are happy to give it. It flatters their ego, and they are thrilled to share their advice.”
And if you’re worried about being judged, Wieser says, this doesn’t reflect reality. “Many people new to the gym feel inadequate for lifting too light or because they don’t know where things are,” she adds. “Everyone is in the gym for themselves, and they aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing.”
Become a regular
As you work up the courage to try a new gym, remind yourself that getting comfortable in an unfamiliar setting may take some time. Doing so will help you better ease into the routine, according to Moore. “If you’re staying away because you’re afraid,” she says, “take the time to get comfortable and observe – maybe walk on the treadmill for a few days to people-watch and learn.”
If wandering makes you uncomfortable, create a clear plan beforehand of what you want to do. “If you’ve never used a gym before, don’t go into it saying you want a six pack,” James Miller, a licensed psychotherapist in Virginia, and the host of the self-development podcast Lifeology Radio, says. “Instead, focus on getting into the gym for X amount of time, and X many times each week. Things can evolve from there.”
More often than not, a gym experience will leave you pleasantly surprised, and overcoming your fears can be empowering.
“With anything new, the price of admission is often feeling uncomfortable,” Moore says. “But once you’re into the routine of going to the gym, you’ll see yourself differently, and your habit will become a source of pride.” – This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The New York Times