Gymtimidation: Why you're getting intimidated at the gym and how to fix it

Stock image of woman at the gym wiping face with towel
If you are anxious about the gym, ask for guidance on using the equipment if necessary. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Melanie Radzicki McManus of CNN

It happens to every gym-goer at some point. You're getting ready to head to the gym or begin using a piece of equipment, and suddenly you feel stressed and anxious. Maybe it's because of what you're wearing, a lack of fitness or uncertainty about how a group class will operate. These negative feelings - dubbed "gymtimidation" - are real, and they can prevent you from achieving your fitness goals. That's a real problem, experts say.

There is a wealth of evidence that being physically fit is key to preventing chronic illness and death. Staying active also helps you sleep better, reach or maintain a healthy weight, and control your blood pressure. In addition, exercise is a powerful force in combating stress, anxiety and depression - a real irony when it comes to the issue of gymtimidation.

"Gym anxiety affects people who are young, old, male and female," said Brookelyn Suddell, director of group fitness strategy and development for Crunch Fitness in New York City. "It affects people of all ethnicities and races, and of all ability levels, although its frequency and intensity differ by person."

Gymtimidation is definitely common, although not many people talk about it, said Dr. Erin Nitschke, a certified health coach. "Anyone who is new to a gym atmosphere, experiences body image concerns or body dissatisfaction, or who generally feels uncomfortable in crowded spaces may experience this," said Nitschke, who is program director of sciences at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Anxiety about working out in a gym can also be traced to the fact that the gym is actually a unique environment, Suddell said. While people go to a coffee shop for a cup of joe or to the movies to be entertained, people head to the gym for a variety of reasons. Gymgoers may be there for the health benefits, for example, to address a health concern, to achieve a specific athletic goal, or for social acceptance and respect.

"So you have all of these people in close proximity to one another, all coming for their own reasons, but we don't know what everyone's reasons are," Suddell said.

This ambiguity can lead to feeling judged or inadequate, especially if you're not able to achieve what others can or aren't sure how to use a piece of equipment. Feelings of insecurity and a fear of others' opinions could be a couple of the drivers behind the popularity of shy-girl workout videos on TikTok, which collectively have amassed more than 530 million views. One viewer posted this common sentiment: "I wanna do this so bad, but I get the worst anxiety that someone would judge me."

Combating gymtimidation

There are a number of ways you can try to make a trip to the gym more enjoyable. But first you need to identify exactly what is making you uncomfortable, according to Nitschke. One way to do this is by pondering a few simple questions: How would I describe my concerns about the gym? What are my main fears? What would help boost my confidence in the gym and help me feel like I belong?

Once you've identified your fears and concerns, see if one or more of these options, shared by Nitschke and Suddell, help alleviate them.

Shop around

Gyms come in many different shapes and sizes. Small boutiques or female-only gyms may be just what you need to boost your confidence. Or you may prefer a large facility with numerous classes and equipment from which to choose. Pay attention to the location, too. You'll want something reasonably close to work or home.

Dress for success

Wear comfy clothes that you feel good in, no matter what styles are trending at the gym - especially if they're tight or revealing. One shy-girl TikTok video suggested a baggy T-shirt and shorts. If you feel more confident in tights and a cropped top, however, that's what you should wear.

Ask for an orientation

Most gyms will offer tours, explain how to use particular pieces of equipment, and give you intel on the popular classes and busiest times. Once armed with this knowledge, you can elect to go when the crowds are down or use pieces of equipment in more sheltered locales. Or maybe you'll choose a busy yet convenient time, but skip the locker room for a shower at home.

'Disappear' with friends or in a group

Some people feel less visible and more at ease if they work out with a friend or two, which also provides accountability and social support. Group classes can be another good option. If you're new, it may help to set up in the back of the room until you're comfortable with the routine.

Consider non-gym options

If the gym just doesn't feel right to you, there's always one-on-one fitness training, online workouts, and outdoor exercise such as walking, running and cycling. The most important thing is not to let unease in the gym stop you from working out altogether.

"Fitness is for everybody," Suddell said. "It might take a little more digging, but there's something out there that will set your soul on fire. I hope nobody gives up on that."

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specialises in hiking, travel and fitness.