Going to the Gym when Feeling too Scared
Objective: The decision to start hitting the gym is an exciting one. It often starts off with purchasing shiny new sneakers, whipping up protein shakes and curating the perfect workout playlists to get yourself pumped up.
Going to the gym is rewarding spiritually, physically, and mentally. Everybody deserves a shot at becoming the best version of themselves. This article is aimed at aspiring gym-goers who feel held back by fear and anxiety etc.
The U.S. News & World Report Magazine says, “By the second week of February, some 80 percent of those resolutions are back home with a new kind of remorse staring back at them in the mirror – the remorse of disappointment”. Now, let’s work on the mental obstacles standing in the way of your fitness goals.
Why is Going to The Gym so Difficult?
Weightlifting doesn’t bring many noticeable benefits at the beginning in terms of aesthetics. Also, it accompanies physical obstacles: sore muscles, tiredness, sweatiness. Often times people stack a stressful job on top of that, which is physically and mentally taxing.
The pay-off becomes more noticeable over a relatively long period of time, at least a couple of months. This concept is known as delayed gratification, a strong test of patience for beginners.
Delayed gratification helps give users the results they desire in the longer-term. Giving a sense of fulfillment and pleasure, long after a task or activity is completed.
Activities and objects that give our brain an instant feeling of pleasure are known as instant or short-term gratification (e.g. video games, social media, recreational drugs). These feel pleasurable in the long-term yet unsatisfying in the long run.
Find the list of 25 low-stress jobs for people with anxiety here.
Power of Positivity
Positive reinforcement is proven to be more effective and sustainable in the long-term then punishments and negative feedback. There have been studies done suggesting so in multiple scenarios: children, animals, students in a classroom.
There was a breakthrough study on positive reinforcement, done by New York State Hospital. Hospital management staff realized that only 10% of nurses were properly sanitizing their hands when tending from patient to patient. In this study, an electronic screen was installed outside of sinks and washroom doorways.
Method one tested for the effectiveness of negative feedback. When nurses would properly sanitize their hands, they were assigned a pass. However, when they failed to do so, they received a fail message. After a 16-week period, the passing rate increased from 10% to 81.6%.
The second method utilized positive feedback. When nurses would meet the hand sanitizer requirements, they would receive messages like: “Great Shift” and if lagging behind(failing), they would receive more inspiring messages like “Keep it Up”. Method two(positive), was proven to be an estimated 17.5% more effective than method one(negative).
Why is Positive Reinforcement Effective?
“A desirable stimulus is introduced to encourage certain behavior.”- B.F. Skinner, American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor.
Envisioning what we will receive as a reward gives us something to look forward to. Improving your mindset can be done by telling yourself the positives of doing a task. Instead of focusing solely on the negatives of failure. Because if the best-case scenario is not screwing up, and the worst-case scenario is letting yourself down, it removes the sense of victory upon success. This may possibly increase the risk of burn out.
Building Habits, and Positive feedback loops
The visible benefits of working out take quite some time to manifest. Therefore, we need to positively visualize our future until the results are here says Norman Vincent Peale author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Try Visualizing the decreased stress, improved sleep, and increased energy you will receive from staying consistent with a gym routine.
Remember, going to the gym consistently will eventually turn from a grueling chore, into a positive habit. Patience and consistency are the quickest way to make it happen. Trust in the process.
A research study from the University of London suggests “It takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, according to new research by Doctor Phillippa Lally “Some habits can begin to form from as early as 21 days.”
After exercising your body physically for a while, the gratification received will make it easier for you to go to the gym, while also making other aspects of your life easier. This concept is referred to as a positive feedback loop.
Using Positive Visualization to Overcome Gym Anxiety
“We can never maintain peace in the outer world. Until we make peace with ourselves.” – Dalai Lama
Being too scared to workout at the gym can stems from the negative images in our mind. Embarrassed about how out of place you’ll look, worrying about people laughing at you.
Feeling anxiety towards a situation in an imaginary context is a drawback; One can’t really expect themselves to come mentally prepared in the flesh, if they’re already worried before setting foot in the building.
What is Positive Visualization?
In layman’s terms, positive visualization is imagining things going well, usually in a situation where someone is feeling stress and anxiety towards. Positive visualization is a mental barrier/shield. It helps one overcome mental obstacles towards going to the gym.
How to Positively Visualize.
Try imagining yourself going through the gym experience step by step. Signing up at the front desk, hitting the locker room, stepping foot onto the floor and pushing yourself through a fulfilling workout.
Visualize yourself during the workout, and the joy that you’ll feel while progressing closer towards your goals through each repetition.
Meditation and positive imagery jibe well together. Spiritual leaders understand the power of visualization on mental and spiritual health.
Buddhist monks meditate on mountains or under waterfalls as a visualization tool, because it gives them a clearer peace of mind. All though highly recommended, meditating in these isolated retreats isn’t always feasible. Here are some practical characteristics of a healthy place to meditate/visualize.
- Clean and clutter-free: No clothes lying around, garbage, food, assignments/papers(documents).
- No distracted noises: Unexpected hostile noises (e.g. alarms, stomping, yelling) makes it difficult to relax. White noises and/or background noises such as waterfalls and ocean waves are acceptable.
- No interruptions: Avoid calls, people forcing themselves into your meditation space and bothering you, etc.
- Smell: Keep a smell that is relaxing and welcoming.
- Relaxing environment: Usually best to visualize away from areas where you usually feel anxious or have felt/experienced trauma before.
Al Shorey Ph.D. says well-being is strongly related to the memories and experiences we’ve had growing up. Thus, leading towards a secure base in one’s self-esteem. He explains how one in 45 people did not secure a positive base that instills confidence in oneself.
Fortunately, there is an exercise to help get past this trauma. The best part? All you need is yourself. Try imagining yourself as an inner child, sitting outside in a calm place like an island or meadow. Give yourself the love and affection that you deserved. Let the inner child know that you’ll care for them. See how the imagined inner child reacts to your gestures. Try giving them a hug; Is the child resisting? No worries, be patient with him/her and try again later. There are many other mindfulness exercises you can use to improve anxiety and negative thoughts.
Positive visualization to Stay Motivated
As previously established going to the gym is already difficult for most people. Adding anxiety to the equation makes it worse. Focusing on your mind is vital, particularly in the beginning stages.
Try using Positive Visualization(imagery) to inspire you to stay motivated, even when the process becomes difficult. Especially at the beginning before noticeable results.
Positive visualization may Increase gym results. Simply imagining completing certain exercise movements, and focusing on specific muscles can increase muscle strength and stamina.
Positive Visualization for Motivation
When I needed to exercise, I would always look at the results. Initial lack of progress is demoralizing. Setting a desirable goal, you are working towards is extremely helpful in staying disciplined says psychologist Jordan Peterson.
After deciding on a workout plan visualize the results that will come with it. Then sit back, close your eyes, and imagine what you’ll feel like in 1 year, after exercising your body. Also, the physique you’ll have that comes with a physically active lifestyle.
Firstly, exercising will make it easier for you to conquer social anxiety. Why? Because conquering social anxiety has physical symptoms: (e.g.)
Research shows being physically fit allows patients to better handle the physical symptoms that may stem from social anxiety and panic attacks: Breathing rapidly, Having an increased heart rate, etc. Meaning that every lift pushes you one step closer to overcoming your social anxiety.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also says “Physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress”.
Inspire yourself, try thinking of what the benefits of exercise mean to you. For example, research shows.
Getting back on that horse (workout routine)
There’s an age-old adage, “once you fall off a horse, don’t be afraid to get back on it”.
As previously mentioned, approximately 80% of people give up on their new year’s resolution by February. It’s never too late to start your new year’s resolution again. Giving up on a new year’s resolution, simply because you failed to stick to your goals is illogical. The month of January takes up only 8% of the year.
Even taking a break for two months (not recommended) and then coming back to work out again for the rest of the year, still means working out 84% of the time. That’s a 3.0 GPA, not bad at all.
Reasons why you shouldn’t be nervous
Virtually nobody at the gym is natural
Virtually every person that came to the gym for the first time, started with a non-athletic body. Therefore, all those intimidating muscular-looking dudes that greet when you walk in the gym, have been in your exact same shoes before.
You’re improving yourself
Being scared of being judged doesn’t really make sense considering that many people there, will see themselves in you. Who wouldn’t be happy to see a fellow human strive towards self-improvement?
Nobody should be ashamed of improving themselves. When you decide to make a positive change in your life, remember that people are going to be rooting for you.
“used to have horrible cars, because I never had money, so I’d always end up broken down on the highway. When I stood there trying to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But when I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself—people like to see that” -Chris Rock
Try to remember what you’re good at. Do you play the piano, video games, write poetry? I’m sure your self-thoughts when seeing a beginner miss notes, fail to properly maneuver a joystick, aren’t cruel and degrading. That would simply be childish. You’d just realize that they’re at the beginning stages of becoming great at something. If you’re like me, helping others starting out on a path feels rewarding.
Set Smart Goals
Specific: This needs to be something that you can write down. There can’t be any debates on whether or not this specific goal was achieved.
Measurable: Measurable goals usually have a number, time or percentage attached to it.
Achievable: You need to be able to achieve this goal without overexerting yourself. Can this goal be achieved based off of the current point you’re at? Deciding if a goal is achievable should be based on the level of difficulty, amount of time, and resources available to you.
Relevant/Realistic: Smart goals lead to the overall destination that you’re aiming for. The benefits of a goal should put you in a situation to succeed with moderate effort.
Time-Bound: There should be a specific deadline/target to reach. Next year is not a deadline. The next time you’re free is also not a deadline. Timely deadlines give you a target to work for on a consistent basis.
Specific timelines also make you aware of when exactly you’re falling behind the trajectory(path) of goal success that is being strived towards.
Research shows that telling people your identity goals actually lower motivation when it comes to achieving those goals. Psychologist Art Markman breaks this into layman’s terms, “Mary wants to become a Psychologist. She tells Herb that she wants to pursue this career and that she is going to study hard in her classes. However, just by telling Herb her intention, she knows that Herb is already starting to think of her as a Psychologist. So, she has achieved part of her identity goal just by telling Herb about it.”
In a paraphrase of Psychologist Art Markman, never tell people your goals. This act rewards your brain. Thus, giving you the satisfaction of completing an unfinished task is counter-productive.
In addition, it may apply unnecessary pressure, when you don’t live up to the expectations set for yourself. Deciding to live a more active lifestyle is stressful enough.
Instead, show them through your actions and results. Results are noticed after a consistent effort. After you’ve developed a habit, people notice. Thus, alleviating pressure, since reaching your goals is already second-hand nature(habitual) by that point.
Try Exposing yourself to Exercise in small doses
If working out is intimidating from a physical stand-point, it’s possible to work around that issue. Try to gradually increase exercise intensity and do quick workouts / easy workouts.
Being too scared to go to the gym is a huge mental obstacle for many. Can’t go over, then go under. Have you tried other physical activities?
Alternative Physical Activities
When beginning at ground zero in terms of fitness; taking gradual steps is well worth it. Weight lifting is one of the most stressful exercises. Why not try exercises that target anxiety, and then work your way up from there.
- Swimming: water polo, scuba diving, swimming laps
- Fast Walking
- Dancing: salsa, contemporary dancing, break-dancing
Consider Working out at Home?
Having a home gym can be many people’s number one option. There’s a bunch of body-weight exercises you can find online. Deciding to workout at home is a great way to get comfortable in a gym environment. After some progress, you may find that you enjoy working out at home. After a few weeks working out at the gym will most definitely be a breeze.
Choose a more Comfortable Gym
There are certain factors that can make a gym feel more comfortable depending on the goer. Consider Planet Fitness which prides itself in creating a safe-feeling gym environment.
- Less yelling and screaming or dropping of weights.
- People around your age.
- Going to a smaller gym with fewer eyes on you
- A gym that has more people of your gender/ethnicity
- Location and commute.
- Open space, less crowded: *Go to the gym when it’s empty, or a gym that is less-crowded during your scheduled gym time
Choosing and Learning a Workout plan
A common fear of going to the gym is the lack of knowledge and looking out of place. E.g. Not learning/knowing how to use a workout machine properly, lifting a small amount of weight. The best way is to go with somebody that’s experienced.
Don’t Work out Alone!
My number one rule to going to the gym when feeling too scared? Go with another person. Being with another body helps put your mind at ease.
Also, research suggests working out with others can help you work twice as hard. This is known as the Kohler effect.
Hire a Personal Trainer
Personal trainers are helpful for beginners. Getting a personal trainer makes the learning process much simpler. Plus, these people are experienced in helping others feel comfortable. Here’s a step-by-step guide on choosing a personal trainer that works for you.
Many gyms offer a personal trainer for free (or heavily discounted) for the first few sessions). What if I don’t want or can’t get a personal trainer? The next best thing is to watch/get workouts online. I highly recommend starting off at stack.com’s beginner’s workout guide. To help teach the fundamentals of working out. You can also find many weightlifting plans and tips and instructions. I like to call stack.com the google of the fitness world. Learning the fundamentals can be a great emotional support when feeling scared of going to the gym.
Do you have a friend that already works out? Going to a gym full of strangers accompanied by another stranger (personal trainer) can be anxiety-inducing. Having a friendly face is always reassuring, especially when they’re your friends.
Many people have multiple friends to choose from. Let’s discuss finding the perfect gym partner for you. Key emphasis on you.
Key Traits of a good gym partner
Similar Body type:
When it comes to working out, different body types work better for different workout regimens. That’s why you’d never see Olympic 100m-dash Champion sprinter Usain Bolt, exercise with long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge. There are three classes of body types: Ectomorph, Mesomorph, and Endomorph
Figure 1 Muscle and Strength.com
- Flat chest
- Lean muscle mass
- Slim frame
- Harder to gain weight
- Rectangular body
- Gains muscle quickly
- Gains fat slightly easier
- The body is soft and round
- Muscles less defined
- Hard to lose fat
Gym partners should have similar goals and workout intensity. Having a gym partner that is trying to be a professional athlete could be a mental obstacle. Assuming you’re weightlifting as a hobby. This can leave one person feeling weighed down. Leaving the other partner feeling shy from being out-worked/outshined.
Similar skill/strength levels: Working out with people slightly ahead of your skill/strength is motivating. You can also learn to gain those desired results.
All though, when somebody is stacking a much larger amount of weight while using advanced techniques you’ve never even imagined. That can be intimidating. Especially if you’re a beginner.
Start off Strong
It’s tempting to push your physical limits right at the beginning when deciding to turn your life around. Experts warn users to trek lightly at first, as overtraining is a recipe for disaster. Dr. Higgins says, “The current recommendation is 2-3 days per week, for at least 30 minutes per day. But for someone who is just starting out, we recommend that they start at 1-2 days per week and ramp it up from there.”
Consider joining a class, virtually every gym has some sort of fitness class.
The benefits of joining a gym class:
- Classes are led by an instructor
- Less expensive compared to personal training
- Variety of options:
- Many beginners = low stress/competition
- Grouped/Segregated (e.g. seniors, women’s, beginners’ classes, etc.)
- Emphasis on fun instead of results
Start off with simpler and natural feeling lifts (e.g. bench press, squats, lunges). These are also called free lifts because the weights are not tied down to the machine.
Using machines are easier for beginners. Feel free to use them as a step up to using free-weights(dumbbells, bench-press.
Also, many machines have a diagram of how to properly use the machine.
Ask for a tour of the gym. Before deciding to work out, call the gym and ask to book a tour. They’ll have a staff member introduce you to different facilities. Do some body-weight exercises for a few weeks to get in shape before going.
- Go with somebody else: Gym partner, a personal trainer, join a class
- Choose a compatible partner: Body type, goals, intensity, etc.
- Ask for a tour
- Exercise at home beforehand
- Set S.M.A.R.T goals
- Visualize yourself lifting beforehand