If you’ve been a Lightly We Go reader for any length of time, you might be aware of my complicated relationship with the gym. I’ve written before about feeling especially anxious at the idea of exercise, especially in a confined space with other (fitter) people, but also about how the act of working out often does wonders for my mood. Gym fear, though, was one of my anxiety’s last strongholds following my difficult first year at uni. Four or five months ago I couldn’t cope with the idea of working out in any way – but on returning to uni at the weekend getting back into the gym is one of the things I am most looking forward to. In fact, in the final few of weeks of last term, I was getting up and going to the gym almost every other day. I know that gym fear is something a lot of people struggle with, for a huge variety of reasons, so today I want to share just how I managed to rid myself of gym anxiety – hopefully for good.
As ever, a disclaimer: I am not a qualified therapist, counsellor, psychologist, personal trainer, etc etc. Today I just want to explain how I’ve managed to reach this stage, in the hope that it might help other people struggling in a similar way.
The post I’ve linked above outlines the reasons I suffered from gym fear pretty succinctly:
…recently the idea of the gym has filled me with an anxiety I’ve not felt for a long time. I find myself making excuses as to why I shouldn’t go, and feeling shaky and nauseous and desperate for somewhere to hide. I hate this, because the gym has always made me feel strong mentally as well as physically; I always leave on a high, not just from endorphins but because of the success I have demonstrated over the cruel voices in my head, which for many years told me I was hopeless at exercising, and shouldn’t be seen by anyone (myself included) in gym wear or a swimming costume. But recently, they have returned: you aren’t good enough, they tell me.
When I wrote the post in 2015, I was about to head off to university; I didn’t know it then, but what I was feeling was the foundations of an anxiety which would plague me for the next twelve months. But even when it began to dissipate, that fear of the gym remained. It stemmed not from the same place as 2015, where my anxiety lay in my appearance, but instead from the knowledge that I would be subjecting myself to something that I’m not very good at. My self-confidence has always been tentative, so willingly putting myself forward to do something that, in the past, I’ve never been successful at was nerve-wracking – especially given my particularly shaky state of mind. But, of course, the only way you can ever get better at something is by doing it.
Other people feel gym fear for different reasons. They might be concerned about what other gym-goers will think of them, or worried that they don’t know how to use any of the equipment or what exercises to do. They might previously have been avid gym-subscribers, but after an injury or a long time off their confidence has taken a dip. All of these reasons – any others you might have! – are valid. You’re not alone in how you feel. But if, despite your fear, you want to have a go at the gym, trust me when I say you can.
On the whole, gym fear ultimately stems from too much pressure. It could be pressure from mainstream media suggesting you ought to look a certain way or have a body type only obtainable by going to the gym (plus a heavy dose of Photoshop). It might be pressure from friends, family or a partner who gyms regularly – even if they don’t intend to put that pressure on you. Or it could just be pressure you’re putting on yourself, for whatever reason.
For me, it was a combination. Back home I always had to be taken to the gym so I couldn’t go on my own terms or when I really wanted to. I always felt like I had to follow an exact routine I’d been set, which was exacerbated by a fear of asking how to use certain equipment. Plus, I was so focused on certain goals that I never seemed to be able to improve. That pressure built up and up, and something had to give.
So how did I push past the pressure I was putting on myself?
The truth is, I didn’t.
Instead, I just got rid of it.
I know – as if it’s that easy. And it might not be, for some people. But let me elaborate. I removed all the pressure I was putting on myself by changing my goals. Rather than wanting to run further or row faster or do heavier squats or whatever it may be, I instead focused on one aim only. My goal became:
“Feel confident at the gym”
By removing all of the physical aims, going to the gym could become a purely mental exercise aimed not at getting fitter or stronger, but simply feeling comfortable in the gym environment. It was also a positive goal – not “stop” but “do”, making it easier to work towards and achieve over time.
My first step, I discovered later, was actually a simplified version of what psychologists call systematic desensitisation or graduated exposure therapy. It’s often used to combat phobias and (on a very basic level) involves slowly introducing the subject to the thing that they fear bit-by-bit until their confidence grows. In the gym context, it meant just going to the gym regularly and staying only as long as I was comfortable with until I felt ready to build it up.
I’ve made it easy for myself. I get up at 7am and aim to leave for the gym by 8 (though realistically I leave between 8:15 and 8:30). I go early so the gym isn’t busy – I hate feeling awkward standing around waiting for equipment to be free. Plus walking half a mile first thing in the morning always sets me up in a really good mood!
When I first started trying to build my gym confidence I told myself I could leave at any time. It was perfectly ok for me to walk to the gym, arrive, and then turn around and walk straight home. The fact that I got up, put on gym clothes and walked there was more than I’d been doing for months, so I could call it a success. In fact, by the time I’d put on the clothes and walked all the way there I just wanted to get in and start working out! But if I got inside, sat on the bike for ten minutes and then started to feel anxious, I could just as easily stop and go home, and still call the trip a success.
At the gym back home I had a set routine I did every time. It was an hour-long full body workout with cardio, bodyweight, and free-weight exercises, and it was pretty shattering. Sometimes I loved it and it was exactly what I needed, but other times I absolutely dreaded the idea of having to go through every prescribed set. My next realisation towards losing my gym fear was that I didn’t need a plan; I could just do what I felt like. On my first trip to the gym this year I did 15 minutes on the bike and 15 minutes of running intervals on the treadmill, and then I left. On my second trip, I did both of those things plus a 1km row and a lower-body circuit workout. Next time I hope to do an upper body workout, but if I don’t feel like it then that’s okay – I’m still working on feeling confident in the environment above anything else, so as long as I’m happy and comfortable, my workout is a success. What I’m trying to say is, having a flexible plan (or no plan at all!) can go a long way towards relieving that pressure.
One of the biggest problems, too, comes from simply overthinking it. That’s why I like to get up and go first thing; I take a don’t think, just do mentality. I know that once I’m there, I’ll be fine, but certainly when I started building my gym confidence I knew that if I thought too much about it I’d talk myself out of going. Now, though, it’s something I actively look forward to when I wake up – I even want to go on my rest days. Talk about progress!
Now that I’ve got a confident foundation at the gym, I’m looking forward to working on new, fitness-focused goals rather than mental ones alone. These, too, can be built up slowly; in the near future I’ll write a post on my favourite resources for workouts if you don’t feel ready to ask a member of gym staff yet. Finally, if you’re really struggling with gym fear, then please remember that you don’t have to go to the gym. You can get fit and strong without ever stepping into a weights room or paying a subscription. If it’s not for you, it’s completely okay – and trying to force yourself will only worsen that pressure.
I don’t know for sure that I’ve got rid of my gym fear forever; if I have another anxious period in my life it could return. But I do know that I’ve found the tools to help me overcome it, should I ever need to again.