How to Be Less Anxious about Exercising when Exercising Makes you Anxious

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

You’re mindlessly scrolling through social media, seeing Insta-worthy bodies, guys with washboard abs, and girls that could easily choke-slam you to the ground. You know it’s not real, but it’s there, and it’s reminding you that you could be, should be, or would be doing more for your health because of all of the benefits. But why bother? They’ve reached the summit and you haven’t even reached basecamp yet. Worse yet, you tried to start an exercise routine before and quit because it was overwhelming.

Don’t worry, you’re in good company. I didn’t even step foot into a gym for the first eight years of my fitness journey; it caused me that much anxiety. You’re far from the only person who has those anxious feelings about going to the gym or even starting to exercise at home. On top of all that, being LGBTQ, we may find ourselves triggered or not welcome in some fitness spaces.

There are four main psychological reasons for gym anxiety, so let’s break them down and get you less anxious.

Feeling Uncertain

Not being sure what to do is both a physical and psychological problem. Physical, because if you don’t know what’s an effective workout, then you won’t ever do it. Psychological, because uncertainty is stressful.

It’s hard to be certain when there are so many flashy fat-busting, muscle building, “best,” “only” workout programs. Perhaps you don’t know how to interact with other folks in the gym, or how to use the equipment correctly. The idea of looking like an idiot and wasting your time is stressful.

The answer is to get more certain, which is simple but perhaps not easy.

  • Start with what you’re familiar with whether that’s walking, pushups or bicep curls.
  • Pick a plan and study it. Don’t worry about what’s the best plan because anything done consistently is better than the best thing done inconsistently.
  • Ask around for recommendations about safe fitness spaces and visit them before joining. You’ll quickly pick up on bad vibes.
  • Hire a coach to take all the guesswork out. Any worthwhile coach will understand you as a person and therefore be able to adapt a routine to any existing conditions or injuries you may have. Make sure you feel safe around your coach otherwise it will add more anxiety.

Social Comparisons

Social comparisons help you figure out where you stand relative to everyone else. It’s a survival mechanism and a huge part of how we interact with each other. Making those comparisons can be a negative experience if you feel you’re constantly coming up short relative to everyone else.

Upward comparisons could actually be positive. Instead of highlighting your flaws, that comparison could be framed as room to grow. It could be as simple as “if that person can do it, then I can do it too!”

Studies by psychologist Robert Cialdini show that you assign more importance to things you pay more attention to. This is also known as the Spotlight Effect. When you consciously make a comparison, you’re upgrading its place in your brain from coach to business class

Finding ways to focus on no one but yourself is key (and also, why would you care about anyone? You’re the f*cking boss anyways)

Photo by Ivan Samkov.
  • Pick one thing about the exercise to focus on (hips back, back straight, tighten your core) and all of your mental bandwidth will be centered on that.
  • Throw on some headphones, put on your favorite music, and get lost in the latest Doja Cat song.
  • If you wear glasses, take them off while performing an exercise. You’ll disappear into your own world and only be able to see your hands.

Feeling Like You’re Being Judged

People at the gym are there to work out, not judge other people at the gym. It’s easy to say but doesn’t often help because knowing it and believing it are two different things. And of course, there’s exceptions to everything because at some point, somewhere, someone has been judged in a gym. People judge others for all kinds of things – just observe social interactions at a bar on any given night.

But you can learn how to deal with people judging you – if they even are. If you feel like you’re being judged at a gym, keep these three things in mind:

Photo by William Choquette.
  • The vast, vast majority of people aren’t sparing you a second of thought.
  • If someone is judging you, that is more a reflection on them than it is on you.
  • You are there for no one else but yourself.

Feeling Like You Don’t Belong

Stepping into the fitness world can sometimes feel like walking into a club where it seems like everyone’s a lifelong member. Perhaps you’ve even said “I don’t feel fit enough to go to the gym,” which sounds ridiculous because don’t gyms exist specifically so that people can get fit? I’ve heard this lots of times, but what these folks really mean is “I don’t feel like I belong in the gym.”

There’s quite a bit of research on “in-groups” and when you start a fitness routine or walk into a gym with no experience, you’re on the outside looking in. One solution to this is to signal to everyone else that you’re part of the in-group. Perhaps you buy the right gym clothes or avoid certain exercises so that you attract less attention. Truthfully this solution is wishy-washy at best.

The true answer is time because you get more comfortable with things as they become familiar. So the more you spend time exercising or going to the gym, the better you’ll feel about it and the less anxiety you’ll have.

  • Start small. Find a quick five-minute routine that you can commit to every day to build consistency and confidence
  • Expose yourself to the gym. For a week, simply go to the gym, stay near the front desk for 5 minutes then leave. Next week go walk around the weights and machines and build from there.
  • Find a workout partner. Nothing will be a bigger motivator than having a personal cheerleader right next to you supporting you the entire time.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
Chad Isaiah (he / him) is a Certified Fitness Coach, getting his clients results beyond the numbers on the scale by helping them understand their value as a person. He believes that health and fitness should be a safe and inclusive space for everyone. Check out his training services over at Chad Isaiah Coaching.