True confession: I can’t do a somersault to save my life.
Never could, maybe never will. Since I was a kid, my attempts at the move have ended up as off-kilter corkscrews that excelled in humor but lacked in grace.
I’m reminded of my somersaulting “prowess” sometimes when I’m working out. I see other exercisers performing feats that are quite amazing. Some lift barbells weighted down with what seems like the equivalent of a small car. Others sprint on treadmills like they’re escaping from ravenous tigers. Still others do human flag holds like it’s all perfectly normal and natural.
Sometimes this is all a bit . . . shall we say, intimidating. I occasionally feel self-conscious about what I’m doing — and at other times deflated about not doing what others seem to be able to do with such ease.
There’s a term coined for this feeling: “gymtimidation.” Not surprisingly, the feeling’s common. A 2019 survey of 2,000 American adults found that half of respondents felt that the idea of working out among other people in a gym environment is daunting. Of 3,140 responders to a 2022 survey, 38 percent said they fear being judged.
In the end, the two surveys concluded that gymtimidation can tip the scales against exercising at all.
“Gym anxiety can be a huge barrier for many people when it comes to getting in shape and starting a new fitness routine,” explains Life Time personal trainer and Alpha coach Becca Rigg, NASM-CPT. “The gym can feel like a foreign country where people speak a different language. A lot of the equipment can be intimidating if you’ve never used it before. Sometimes you see other people who look so confident, so fit, so sure of what they’re doing, and it makes you feel even more out of place, like you don’t belong there.”
Rigg herself has faced gymtimidation (for more on her story, see “A Life Time Transformation Story With Becca Rigg“), so she speaks from the heart when she offers strategies on how to deal with it.
“Remember that most everyone has felt some gymtimidation or anxiety at one point or another,” she says. “The most fit and confident person you see at the gym was a newbie once just like you.”
Finding Your Home in a Fitness Center
1. Know Before You Go. Research health clubs and gyms online, read reviews, and then tour the facility, advises the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). You might prefer a smaller space or a private studio; a gym without mirrors; or a fitness center that caters to specific interests or populations.
2. Start Small. At first, try going during off-peak hours. Visit maybe once a week and build up over time. If you’re nervous about the locker room, begin by changing and showering at home. “When it comes to being seen in the locker room, it is truly my experience that no one is ever judgmental or condescending,” says Rigg.
3. Plan Ahead. “Having a plan ahead of time gives you confidence and purpose on the workout floor — but also make sure to have a plan B just in case certain equipment is not available,” she advises. “That way, you know what to do and you won’t get stuck or lost if plan A doesn’t work.”
4. Distract Yourself. I find that bringing my own soundtrack can help me tune out surrounding noise and concentrate on what I’m doing. And, of course, people all around me are doing the same — reminding me again that it’s not a comparison game. All of this helps me focus on why I’m there.
5. Use the Buddy System. Go with a friend. “Having an appointment with a friend will make it more likely for you to show up because you don’t want to let them down,” Rigg observes. “It will also help you feel less vulnerable to know that there’s somebody else with you. Even if they don’t know what they’re doing, at least you’re both in this together!”
6. Get Smart About the Gear. If you’re new to the workout floor, weights and fitness machines can be puzzling — even daunting. “People are afraid of using them the wrong way; they might be nervous that their form isn’t right or that they’re doing a movement wrong,” says Rigg. “So, sign up for an equipment orientation with a personal trainer. Trainers will be happy to show you around and explain what all the equipment is for and how it works.”
7. Seek Professional Help. In a health club, this means a personal trainer. “Working with a personal trainer can give you confidence that you’re doing the right exercises the right way,” explains Rigg.
“A personal trainer can also help you navigate the gym floor when it’s crowded. They have a good understanding of etiquette, and they know how to pivot when equipment that you wanted to use is not available.”
Or you might wish to start with a class. “Moving and sweating together can be extremely unifying.”
8. Start Where You Are. This concept is key to exercising at any level: It reminds you to avoid comparing yourself with others or lamenting slow progress toward your goals. It’s about self-compassion, which is essential to self-care.
“Let other people inspire you but never intimidate you,” Rigg suggests. “Showing up and starting new habits takes courage and strength. Be proud of yourself for making this a priority and celebrate every tiny victory along the way.”
There’s a mental aspect to this as well, I realize. I try to accept my feelings of anxiety and nervousness — without letting them intimidate me or derail my exercising.
That’s easier said than done, of course, but Rigg’s advice is an ideal way to build up to this. “Remember, being there in the gym is exactly what makes you belong there,” she says. “Keep showing up: The more you come, the more it will feel like home.”
This article originally appeared as “Overcoming Gymtimidation” in the January/February 2023 issue of Experience Life.