How to Ease Gym Anxiety at Any Point In Your Fitness Journey

Whether you've been exercising for ages or are brand-new to fitness, these tips will help prevent gym anxiety from ruining your movement practice.

How to Ease Gym Anxiety

Kickstarting a movement practice for the very first time can feel a lot like going on a first date: Your mind might race with anxious thoughts, your palms may be incredibly sticky, and your stomach could feel like it's tied in knots. 

But this so-called gym anxiety isn’t only experienced by beginners. Dipping your toes into barre when you’re a long-time powerlifter or trying a workout class at a different studio than your go-to can also leave you feeling uneasy and intimidated.

In fact, Keri Harvey, an NASM-certified personal trainer at FORM Fitness Brooklyn, felt “embarrassed” at an unfamiliar gym just the other day. Ready to test out a machine she had never seen before, Harvey took a beat to read over the equipment’s instructions and safety precautions. Despite being an experienced trainer, “for some reason, it made me feel like I was letting everyone else know that I don't know what I'm doing,” she says. 

TL;DR: Gym anxiety can spring up in anyone at any point in their fitness journey. Thankfully, though, there are steps you can take to calm your nerves — both ahead of and during your movement practice — so you can fully enjoy the experience. Here, experts break down your game plan. 

The Causes of Gym Anxiety

The idea that fitness and wellness spaces can stir up some anxious thoughts, perhaps more so than other arenas, isn’t that surprising, says Leah Katz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon. Messages on social platforms and in the media tell you how you should look, how you should be moving, and what your workouts should include, she says. That, combined with your personal relationship with your body and movement, can make starting — or changing up — your routine feel particularly scary, says Katz. “Even if you think about how gyms are structured,” she adds. “I'm not saying that this is bad necessarily, but there are mirrors everywhere. You're really confronted with what your body looks like.”

The bodybuilders taking over the weight room and the apparent pros in your Pilates class don’t help the situation, adds Harvey. “You see the people who are walking around and giving off that air of like, ‘I've been doing this for 40 years,’” she says. “That may or may not be true, but for some people, that could come off as intimidating and make them feel like they shouldn't be there because this is Day One for them. And that's not the case at all.”

Some people may be more likely to experience gym anxiety than others, including folks who are prone to or already struggle with anxiety in other aspects of their life, says Katz. “Oftentimes, anxiety expresses itself as getting in your head and comparing yourself to other people,” she explains. “If that's the particular brand of anxiety that someone struggles with, going to the gym will probably be really hard because there are so many opportunities to compare.” People who have had negative experiences with fitness or their body or who’ve been on the receiving end of harmful messages about those topics (think: your parents made toxic comments about your appearance as a teen) may also feel particularly anxious in fitness spaces, says Katz. 

FTR, feeling nervous ahead of a new yoga class or apprehensive about lifting dumbbells for the first time is totally normal, says Katz. “Anxiety is a healthy emotion in some circumstances [think: when taking a test or doing a job interview], and oftentimes that emotion is letting us know that something new is happening,” she explains. “If you’re starting a new gym membership or a new class and you're noticing some anxiety come up, that’s just [because] you don't know how it’s going to turn out.”

Most often, this anxiety will resolve shortly after you complete the workout or class. But if that emotion lingers — you can’t seem to shake it even after finishing a few workouts — or it heightens and disrupts your day, you may be dealing with more severe anxiety and may benefit from chatting with a mental health professional, says Katz.

The Short- and Long-Term Effects of Gym Anxiety

Feeling on edge ahead of a new workout class or first-ever lifting session isn’t the only way gym anxiety can manifest. You may also ruminate on the upcoming activity, spending excessive time thinking about the HIIT class you have later in the week, or feel a sense of dread over it, says Katz. Physical symptoms can also develop. “I like to tell my clients your emotions and your feelings are reflected in your body,” she says. “If someone's feeling anxious about [their workout], they might notice they have butterflies or knots in their stomach. Oftentimes you carry anxiety in your upper body, so feeling a sense of tightness in your chest or your shoulders or clenching your jaw.”

During your workout itself, you might choose to stay on the sidelines rather than take up the space you need to get the most out of your session, adds Harvey. “You might not want to be in other people's way when you have a right to be in the space as much as everyone else,” she says. “You may try and find a corner and hide out there instead of taking advantage of everything that's in the gym.” Consequently, you may not feel satisfied with your experience, and over time, you might not make as much progress toward your goals.

In the long run, this anxiety can not only make you feel uncomfortable and out of control, but it also has the potential to lead to depression, says Katz. “Anxiety is a physical arousal in your body, and your body's not meant to be anxious for long periods of time,” she explains. “So if you are anxious for an extended period, it's exhausting, depleting, and can cause a secondary depression.” What’s more, you may lose any initial motivation to stick with your new routine or activity, adds Harvey. “If you show up to the gym and you're feeling uncomfortable, nervous, and anxious, you wouldn't want to come back to a space like that,” she says. “It may be a really long time before you get the courage up to go again.”

How to Minimize Gym Anxiety

Stressing about going to the gym for the very first time or switching up your usual movement practice? Putting a few of these expert-approved pointers into action can help ease your anxiety and encourage you to come back for round two. And remember, it’s totally okay to chat with a mental health professional about your thoughts and worries if these tips don't do the trick for you.

Plan your workout in advance.

Walking into the gym without a clue of what exercises and equipment you’re going to test out can make your workout particularly nerve-wracking, says Harvey. That’s why she recommendsprogramming your training sessions ahead of time, which can boost your confidence and ensure you spend less time wandering around aimlessly. “Come up with a plan: 'This is what I'm going to do, this is where I'm going to go, this is how long I'm going to go for,'” adds Katz.

You’ll also want to be open to modifying your routine and have back-up options handy, says Harvey. If you’re trying to get into running but all the treadmills at your gym are taken, for instance, don’t let yourself spiral. Instead, think about how you can tweak your workout to get the same cardio challenge (think: riding on the stationary bike).

If you’re totally lost, try working with a trainer one-on-one. “A trainer is really good at helping you understand how certain exercises should be done and make you feel comfortable in the environment,” says Harvey. “But also a trainer has been in the gym for a good amount of time, so them being confident in the gym can rub off on the client.”

Practice mindfulness.

When you notice yourself engaging in negative self-talk while exercising or reliving memories of past harsh fitness experiences, it’s time to practice mindfulness, says Katz. “Just bringing your awareness back to the present, noticing when your thoughts want to take you away and get you wrapped up in negative thinking, can be really, really powerful,” she says. “You can bring your attention to what's unfolding within yourself and around you in any given moment with compassion and let go of judgment.” Try taking stock of what’s happening in the environment around you, getting grounded in your body, and then letting your worries go like clouds passing in the sky, says Katz.

Pair your workout with something positive.

To make your brand-new movement method actually enjoyable — and help you stick with it — try pairing the anxiety-inducing activity with something pleasant, says Katz. If the latest Harry Styles album is a serious mood booster for you, create a playlist of your favorite upbeat songs and listen to it only when you’re tackling your workout, she suggests. Or, splurge on a special activewear set you’re excited to wear, and put it on only for your dance cardio class. “Pairing something pleasant and exciting with something that's not so pleasant and stressful can make it easier for you to go,” she adds. 

Forget about everyone else in the room.

When you’re not feeling confident with the activity you're trying or the workout space you’re in, you may feel like all eyes are on you, which can exacerbate any gym anxiety you’re experiencing. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: “Most people are focused on themselves — we're all selfish people when it comes to our workouts,” says Harvey. “We really only care about if we are doing things correctly, and so we're not watching that person right next to us who's also exercising.” Translation: Don’t stress about being judged. Odds are, no one in the room wants to devote their mental energy toward critiquing your technique.

Savor the moment.

Once you make it through your first running club meet-up or finish a tough at-home workout, don’t forget to pat yourself on the back. “People don't spend enough time really relishing and savoring the feeling of having done a hard thing,” says Katz. “And that's actually one of the best ways to motivate yourself to keep on showing up.” Give yourself the space to acknowledge what you’ve just accomplished and let your sense of pride sink in. Then, the next time you think about trying that activity, you’ll remember just how fulfilled you felt and will be inspired to tackle it once again, says Katz. 

The bottom line? No matter what point you're at in your fitness journey, you should feel comfortable owning where you are, says Harvey. “Know that whether you’re working out at home or in the gym, with whatever type of movement you choose, you deserve to be there.”

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