Gyms are scary
January 28, 2013 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me get over my gym anxiety and stay motivated to exercise.

I am a 22-year-old guy. I was very heavy in high school, but I've lost weight and am now within healthy weight range for my height. However, I'm still doughy and out of shape. I really want to get some muscle and firm up, mainly for attractiveness/confidence reasons (doughy is not really an option for young gay guys). Here's the problem: the gym freaks me out.

I go in and it's crowded and every guy there is huge and strong and I start to feel panicky and anxious. It doesn't help that I am completely ignorant about gym etiquette, and I have no idea what to do if there are no benches open. Do I stand behind a bench and wait for the guy there to finish? Do I do something else and keep an eye on the bench area? Changing gyms is not an option for now, as I'm a college student and the campus gym is free.

How do you guys deal with gym anxiety? How do I get over the idea that everyone is judging me? How can I get past this and stick to a routine? I'm going to try going in the morning when it's less crowded, but I'm eager to hear your suggestions.
posted by nickhb to Human Relations (31 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If it helps you get over the idea that anyone is even remotely interested in watching you workout - think of the people that you pay attention to. Are they the doughy, sweaty, out of shape flubs or are they the cut, fit people in great clothes?

No one is interested in watching plebes like yourself. Go with confidence that no one is paying even the slightest bit of attention to you.
posted by unixrat at 2:49 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you go very early in the morning, you will mostly be surrounded by people who are a) old and retired or b) in a hurry to get their gym time done so they can get to work on time. Neither has much reason to gawk at you for being out of shape.
posted by idiopath at 2:54 PM on January 28, 2013

Can you get an orientation from a staff member? That might help with some of your questions about etiquette.

I go to fitness classes now instead of doing gym-type workouts; I enjoy it more and thus stick to the routine better. But when I did go to the gym, I always had earbuds in and listened to audiobooks or podcasts. When I am feeling anxious about being in a crowd of people that I can't get away from, the "bubble" created by being plugged in to my ipod helps a lot. I didn't want to appear rude though, so I always acknowledged people I was trading machines with, with a smile/nod.

I am sympathetic about the idea of being judged by everyone else while exercising--I was never a sporty kid and I feel quite self-conscious while exercising. However, rest assured that most people at the gym are not interested in judging you. For one thing, most people are on a schedule and are concentrating on getting their workout done so they can get out of there and do the next thing on their list.

Also, if you start going at a regular time, you'll probably start to recognize people. I feel a camaraderie with my exercise classmates and I used to feel the same way when I recognized people at my gym. I am not/was not interested in judging them. At most, if I gave it any thought, I would feel admiration for people who seemed to be out of shape but committed to working out regularly.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:57 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do I stand behind a bench and wait for the guy there to finish?

Ask how many sets the person has left and wait. If they're taking long rests and I'm doing the same thing then I ask if I can "work in", which means we alternate. It helps to know a lot of exercises so that you can find something to do if every bench is taken.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:58 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I started running and I felt like the goofiest, slowest fool plodding along the side of the road, I told myself that no matter how stupid I looked, there were probably innumerable people sitting on their asses at home who would never even bother to work out.

I also have a policy: if you don't like the way I look, don't look at me.
posted by thank you silence at 3:00 PM on January 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

Jo on off hours (not before work, during lunch, or after work from 6-8) and it won't be crowded. You'll become more comfortable with the place.
posted by irishcoffee at 3:01 PM on January 28, 2013

No one cares where you are in your fitness journey. Every one at the gym is there doing the same thing you're doing, which is working to improve fitness. And they've all been exactly where you've been.

Here are some things that might help you reduce your anxiety:

(1) go at times there are fewer people there, if this is an option. The gym is so much more relaxing when it isn't packed. Oh, I see you do this. This is a really good idea.

(2) if you can find at least even one friend who lift weights, ask him to go with you to the gym once or twice, and you will see how he behaves there and ask him any of these questions.

(3) find alternatives to the exercises that are packed. Every guy at a college gym thinks he needs to be benchpressing all the time. Bench press is a good exercise, but you can do dips, incline dumbbell press, flat bench with dumbbells, pushups, and get many of the same benefits, especially when you're just starting out and will be making gains no matter what you do. This is really a key suggestion since sometimes in a crowded gym you just can't get to do the exercise you want. It only messes with your routine if you're not prepared ahead of time to deviate a little from your plan.

(4) when I have an eye on a particular piece of equipment and it's taken, I find some other exercise to do in the meantime and pounce on it as soon as it opens up, or find an alternative exercise to do for that body part if I just can't get on the bench or squat rack or whatever. If there is just one person on it, I might ask them how much longer they think they'll be using it. If they are friendly and using about the same amount as weight as me, I may ask them to "work in" (alternate sets with them). I don't ask this unless it appears that I won't be putting on and taking off a lot of weights in between sets.

(5) even if you DO hate this feeling, know that it doesn't last forever. After you've been to the gym a bunch of times in a row, it starts to feel normal. Especially if you go at the same time and see a bunch of the same people. I promise that while you might hate feeling this way now, you won't feel this way in a month or two if you go consistently.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:02 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not much of a gym person, but two things spring immediately to mind:

First, find a gym that caters to an older crowd. Gyms definitely have a client base, and when I was going to the one my wife chose and signed us up for, I, forty something guy with some stamina but no definition, was in the middle or slightly above it.

Second, buy some time with a trainer. There are several at the gym (any gym), they're well versed in the etiquette and social structure of the establishment, they aren't there just to help you develop a workout plan, they're also there to help you integrate in to the social structure of the gym and vibe that the people who run the gym are trying to maintain.
posted by straw at 3:02 PM on January 28, 2013

There have been many threads on r/fitness dealing with overcoming gym anxiety.

Etiquette: wipe down the equipment after you sweat on it. Put weights away when you're done using them. Let people work in with you. Spot people if they ask you to. Don't take up more than one piece of equipment at a time or use equipment you don't need in a busy gym.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:06 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's called The Spotlight Effect.

I suggest reading The Invisible Gorilla. The book grew out of an experiment where they had people focus on a task (watching people pass basketballs and counting passes). Then while they were doing the task, they had a guy in a gorilla suit walk into the frame, pound his chest, and walk out. It's not subtle. I mean, it's a guy in a gorilla suit. Something like 50% of the people didn't notice a guy in a gorilla suit. They're not gonna notice you.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:19 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a skinny dude... used to be really self-conscious about going to the gym, because I thought some meat head would kick sand on me. Needless to say, never happened...

First... the trainer really helped. I was no longer lost when maneuvering around the equipment. Second, I realized if we were all in perfect shape, no one would ever go to the gym. Everybody started somewhere and while it's possible that someone might be a little bit of a snob, they're by far the exception rather than the rule. Third, anxiety... good motivator. Keep working out, you won't look out of place.
posted by ph00dz at 3:38 PM on January 28, 2013

No one is interested in watching plebes like yourself. Go with confidence that no one is paying even the slightest bit of attention to you.

Seconding this. The only people who would ever bear you ill-will for being out of shape (and in much better shape than I am, incidentally) are fascist assholes. Learn the general etiquette (no curls in the squat rack) and you will be blissfully fine.

Just make sure that your gym isn't a fascist-asshole gym.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:39 PM on January 28, 2013

Go really early in the morning. Gyms are awkward - it's not you, it's the culture. You can also spend your time at the gym more efficiently if it's less crowded.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:43 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could you go with a friend? I'm female but when I was in college I started going to the gym and I was afraid of the weights because I didn't want to get in anyone's way/didn't know etiquette/etc but my friend and I did weights together and when I got more acquainted with the weight room I was comfortable going by myself. My friend was also very experienced with gyms and knew what she was doing, which also motivated me and helped keep on track.

Also since the past decade or so, I've been a consistent gym-goer (up until the past year...ugh!) and the only people I pay attention to are either the ones who are wearing gym attire that I like/want, or the ones who are in ridiculously good shape and I want to be like them. I'm usually 'in the zone' with music going and doing my thing so I barely notice other people other than trying not to bump into anyone.
posted by fromageball at 3:47 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

My advice is to avoid the machines and benches as much as possible because they usually have crazy lines. Go for the free weights and open mats--if your campus gym is anything like mine, those areas are less crowded because people are intimidated by them. It's not all 100 lb death barbells over there--usually there's a tree of 5 and 10 lb weights too.

There are some basic-but-awesome weight-training exercises you can learn to do at home unweighted or with a broomstick before you try them out in the gym: Google keywords: squats, lunges, bicep curls, "good mornings", tricep kickbacks. Practice these exercises at home until your form is perfect, then do them at the gym with the free weights.

You can also do pushups and situps on any free mat, or BYO yoga mat.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 3:54 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

The truth is, and since I've gained a bit of weight I'm back to forgetting this: No one at the gym is looking at you or caring about what you're doing. I used to literally go to the gym 7 days a week and never missed a day and there were all types of people at the gym. The only people I ever judged were the girls who talked on their phone the whole time they were on the elliptical (which was always like 10 minutes). Everyone is there to do the same thing: work out.

You may want to consider, if your gym offers it, getting a few sessions with a personal trainer so they can show you what you need to be doing. Could get you comfortable with the gym and help you feel confident in what you're doing. You could even get the personal trainer sessions at a different gym so then you could go to your free gym and use what you've learned.

You could also try to use weight machines until you get more comfortable. The machines guide you through the exercises and don't have a lot of etiquette involved, except for wiping them down if you're sweaty. I'm a lesbian and I find the weight rooms intimidating -- lots of jacked guys. Meh. The machines are used by a good mix of people, and I've also noticed the jacked guys come do machines for some excercises (like abs or chest fly) anyway.

I also try to avoid peaks hours. I go at 2pm when the only people there are old people. I love it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:03 PM on January 28, 2013

Nobody is judging you. Nobody is paying attention to you at all. I've been going to the same gym for a year and I couldn't describe to you one person I see there. Everyone is in their own world at the gym, for the most part.

I do go in the mornings or at odd hours during the weekend and it is about 80% less crowded than peak times. Definitely do that if you can until you are comfortable with the equipment.
posted by something something at 5:08 PM on January 28, 2013

My boyfriend and I just started going to a gym after a 20-year stretch of couch potato-ism. We scheduled an appointment with a trainer immediately because we had NO idea what to do. He talked to us a little bit, found out what our goals were and walked us through a very reasonable routine that I think we'll be able to stick with. It was free with our membership. Does your gym offer anything like that? If so, DO IT. I feel much more confident now, knowing what will be most beneficial and exactly what I should be doing.

I totally hear you on gym anxiety. I almost cried while the trainer was giving us a tour because I felt so intimidated and out of place. But I toughed it out and now I feel much better.

Also, I listen to funny podcasts while I'm doing cardio. If people are looking at me, it's because I'm giggling at Doug Benson or Marc Maron.*

*No one is looking at me. Probably no one is looking at you. Almost everyone feels insecure at the gym. Honestly, most people are too busy worrying about themselves to worry about you. Really. I have found this to be true almost 100% of the time.
posted by Aquifer at 5:15 PM on January 28, 2013

I was frustrated by my campus gym in college (too many people) so I joined one out in town and it was one of my better decisions. They did an orientation and after that I felt good about it.

Nthing that nobody is looking at you. I never notice anyone at the gym, unless you are on your cellphone then I'm giving you the death stare.
posted by ibakecake at 5:28 PM on January 28, 2013

You're on campus -- there's got to be a general weightlifting class you can take for like 3 credits, right? Or just ask at the front desk if there are workshops or any sort of orientations that you could get in on. I think that would help you feel more confident about your workout and then when you're ready to "work in" you can just get to it.

Bring a small notebook with you to your workout. This will have your workout plan in it. As you go, make quick notes of how many reps you did and maybe how long it took you. This will help you long term make adjustments and push yourself as well as giving you a record of where you've come. And it will help you "keep your eyes on your own paper" and not think about other people.

People are really self-involved. At the gym, people are mostly focused on what they are doing or are worrying what other people think of them. No one is judging you. And, really, how much is their judgement worth, anyway? Very little.

Put a jar on your dresser (or whatever) and put away at least $2 for every workout. At the end of a month, or two months, go buy yourself some new workout duds. I always feel better at the gym when I'm wearing something that fits and isn't my ratty, old whatevers.

Oh! One more thing: try to get a buddy to go with you. It's always less intimidating with a wing-man (or woman).
posted by amanda at 7:28 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have gym anxiety too, well actually, I have a mild case of social anxiety in general.

But with that being said, I feel so much better when I go to the gym regularly (let's say 4+ times a week). Exposure is the best way to get over this fear. Create positive experiences for yourself at the gym, make it a safe space, and make it a familiar place.

I can also assure you that nobody is looking at you. Really. It's hard to believe when you first start exercising, but people are so focused on their own workout and technique that they don't care to look at anyone else. I only use cardio machines while at the gym and I'm so determined at staring at the television screen or looking at the inaccurate calories burned, time spent exercising, and miles. Other people may talk on their phone, read a book, or whatever while on the machines, but I can assure you that they're not looking at YOU. It's just the anxiety that makes you feel this way.

Besides that, my advice is to just do it. Yeah, I realize that's part of Nike's slogan, but it's true. Don't let anxiety get in the way of you achieving your goals. Don't overthink when to go to the gym/how to plan your trip to the gym if you take public transportation. I used to do this as a student/part time employee and now just an employee with irregular shifts and it was exhausting. I spent more energy focusing on how to get to the gym then actually going to the gym..

Another thing, don't focus on how busy the gym will be at certain hours. Also, don't wait until you feel like going to the gym because it might take a while for that day to arrive. You might come up with several excuses in order to cope with your gym anxiety, but ignore those excuses by forcing yourself to go to the gym even when you feel anxious. You don't need to do weightlifting on those days, cardio's great too!

If you still need that extra push, then try calling a family member or good friend on your way to the gym. I sometimes do this when I'm feeling anxious and I find that it gives me the extra push to get to the gym. Another option is to visit the gym with a workout buddy/friend.
posted by livinglearning at 7:34 PM on January 28, 2013

My college offered weight training as a one quarter course. If yours offers something similar that would be perfect.
posted by rouftop at 8:58 PM on January 28, 2013

I recently finally started a good gym routine. It helps a lot that the gym I go to is not fancy and its members are young and old, fat and thin, fit and not-so-fit, and everything in between. I'm guessing that your college gym is mostly young people who are pretty fit (that's how my college gym was). I understand how that can be very intimidating. I know you don't have a lot of money, but you might want to see if there's a Planet Fitness near you. Their clientele is much more varied than your college gym probably is. Planet Fitness charges like 10 bucks a month, which I'm pretty sure you could manage. If that's not possible, then you can definitely still make this gym work.

I have also experienced gym anxiety. What's helped me beat that, as well as stick with this new gym habit, is simplicity: I don't do any fancy or complicated routines, I don't PUSH MYSELF GRARR, I don't use weights or weight machines. I figure there's time for all of that later, once I'm more happy with my general fitness level and feel more confident in the gym. What I do is 30-50 minutes of good, sweaty, heart-pounding cardio (bike, elliptical or treadmill, or even a combo of two) while watching videos on my iPad, and then I go to the mats, where I've been doing the 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups programs (you can find lots for iOS or Android. For the sit-ups program I actually vary the types of ab work I do -- crunches, reverse crunches, bicycles, this thingermabob with an exercise ball where I pass it between my feet and hands). That's it. Oh, and I stretch, which feels really good. This has been awesome because I never go to the gym and wonder, what the hell am I going to do today? I always know. I don't walk around aimlessly and awkwardly. And watching TV shows on my iPad helps my head stay out of that anxious place it can go when I'm comparing my body/fitness level to others.

And just so you know, based on the answers above I am apparently the only person looking at other people in the gym (I have been WATCHING ALL OF YOU -- fat, thin, well-dressed or not), but even so I am not judging. Unless you don't wipe down the machines. Then I will judge. I will judge you a lot.
posted by imalaowai at 10:16 PM on January 28, 2013

Does the gym offer any classes? Not only do they give some structure to your time there while they last, they're a great way to meet gym buddies for after the class is over. It helps a lot to know that (a) there'll be a friendly face at the gym every Tuesday morning and (b) that friendly face is going to notice if you don't show up. And it's hard to feel intimidated as part of a pair.

(And in case this problem continues post-college: Smaller gyms, especially ones that focus on a particular sport or fitness area, are often a lot more comfortable. (Especially since they're often more willing to show you around, etc.) The gym I go to is a tiny boxing/martial arts gym located in a basement and the atmosphere is super friendly.)
posted by ostro at 10:20 PM on January 28, 2013

In three years the only judgmental comment I can recall was something along the lines of, "Good, you go down deep. That's hard." This came from a guy whom I later discovered could bench more than I deadlifted. So, take a class, learn proper form, and pick moderate weights.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:38 PM on January 28, 2013

I see people and notice people, but I'm there to work on my own fitness, so I don't really pay any attention to how much weight other people are putting on machines or to what size dumbbells they grab.

I'm like imalaowai though in that I definitely notice if you leave a machine all sweaty...or don't cover your mouth when you cough.

If you want to avoid being noticed, I'd stick to cardio machines as much as possible.

Oh, and the thing you said about doughy not being an option for young, gay men? *So* not true. There are lots and lots of guys who find stocky dudes adorable. Add a beard and you've upped your sexual currency a few dozen times. Seriously. Enjoy who you are now, not who you'll be when you drop the next X pounds.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:08 PM on January 28, 2013

So you're going to a university gym? Here's how to have a completely empty gym: what time is the earliest academic class offered by your school? 10 minutes before that class starts is now your gym time. Why? Because there will be some people who go to the gym before class and almost no one who goes at the same time as the earliest class in the day.
posted by raccoon409 at 1:33 AM on January 29, 2013

I'm female, but I was always intimidated by the gym, and especially the weight room, until I started seeing a personal trainer. Now I'm familiar with where things are, how to use all the machines, and gym etiquette, so I feel MUCH more comfortable. I still sometimes feel self-conscious, especially when lifting in front of a mirror, but I remind myself of what almost everyone else on this thread has said: no one's paying attention to you.
posted by eleanor_of_aquitaine at 12:13 PM on January 29, 2013

Besides doing the orientation, the number one thing that helped me feel comfortable about going to the gym at first was taking my glasses off. I'm slightly nearsighted so it didn't impair my ability to navigate things, but it DID keep me from noticing what other people were paying attention to.
posted by zem at 1:36 PM on January 29, 2013

I'm late to this thread, but since you're using a college gym, I'm guessing personal trainers aren't an option. Are there any weight lifting classes offered at the gym? I took one of those at my school gym (it was extra $ and not for credit, but still a good deal) and it really helped. Toward the end of the series, the instructor asked us if there were other machines we were curious about and showed us how to use the elliptical and stuff like that as well.

The class covered basic weightlifting machines and dumbbells and she also covered etiquette like how to "work in" with someone and how you should carry a towel and wipe off equipment when you're done.

Working out with a buddy or an experienced friend is a good idea too.
posted by purple_bird at 4:12 PM on January 29, 2013

Really after the fact, but like zem, I take my glasses off so I literally can't notice what people around me are doing or who's around me. All I can focus on is my exercises. If you need glasses, try it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:21 AM on January 31, 2013

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