Have you ever felt like you don’t know what you’re doing at a gym? Many people I know have had the experience of walking into a weight room with machines they don’t know how to use and people they don’t know how to connect with. If you’re new to the gym, you’re instantly an outsider — and when you’re taking a new step to improve yourself, it’s really tempting to respond to that feeling by just giving up and going home.
Gym anxiety — whether from uncertainty about how to use equipment, fear you are being judged on your fitness level, or other reasons — is a common experience. Improving your fitness can be a vulnerable and sensitive journey to begin, so what can you do to prevent gym anxiety from letting you take that first step?
Start with non-peak hours
If your schedule allows you to go during times when people may not be there, that is a good place to start. Fewer people at the gym means you have more room to find your way. It gives you more freedom to try a variety of exercises without feeling like you are holding anyone up or getting in the way.
If you have a flexible schedule, you’ll avoid crowds in the middle of the day — except for the lunch break, when people may try to squeeze in a workout.
Schedule individual session
Not knowing what to do when you walk up to a piece of equipment may increase your gym anxiety. Weight machines and other trainers are great for building muscle (even the ones I barely knew existed!), but it is exceptionally easy to injure yourself if you do not know the proper form to use.
For the beginner, I highly recommend learning how to use the machines before you try them out. Many gyms will have trainers available for personal sessions to show you how to use what you are looking for. Having someone there to help you and show you the ropes may make you feel a little less intimidated about being there.
While learning how to use exercise equipment helps build your fitness level, it will also help you when it comes time to explore the gym yourself. Having the knowledge beforehand gives you more confidence to walk to a machine and just try it out — and eventually, build your own gym routine.
Come with a plan, and a willingness to adapt
Another source of gym anxiety is just plain uncertainty, where you wander around the gym wondering what the heck you want to do next. There are so many possibilities when it comes to choosing an activity, and it can be easy to fall into decision paralysis trying to make a quick judgment of what’s next.
By coming to the gym with a plan, you can beeline straight to the treadmill or the dumbbells. Without time to fuss around, you can avoid feeling awkward.
Although it’s best to come with a plan, you need to be willing to switch it up. You may want to use the barbell, only to discover that someone is already using it. If this happens, swap to your backup plan, or have a fallback activity ready! It’s never a bad idea to be over-prepared.
Use your friends
I was a part of a group in college that literally specialized in battling gym anxiety for women. We learned that going with a partner or a small group makes the unfamiliar environment so much easier to navigate. We were born for community, and that can apply to fitness as well!
I caution against bringing too many people in your group, though — there is a limited number of machines and space, and if you’re setting aside time for the gym, you don’t want to spend most of it waiting for a station to open up.
Get over it
I often find myself falling back on one of the most fundamental lessons my mom gave me growing up: she’d say, “Not everything is about you.” Although it sounded pretty harsh to me at the time, her words help me try new things and be less afraid.
While it feels like everyone in the gym is staring at you and making assumptions and judgments, chances are good that they’re just going about their own business. When people are “in the zone” at the gym, they’re focused on their own effort and may not even be aware of your presence, even if it feels like they are looking right at you.
Even if you go to the gym with friends or arrive with a plan, just know that any new context means you’ll be a little uncomfortable at first. Working out in front of people or exploring unfamiliar territory means stepping out of your comfort zone — which is the whole point, right? You’re taking a step in a bold new direction for your health and fitness, and that’s something to celebrate. Just remember that everyone else who’s in the gym was a beginner, too. By your third visit, you’ll be a regular!