In a perfect world, the hardest part of going to the gym would be your workout — not walking through the doors. However, if thoughts of navigating the equipment, being watched or judged, or even using the locker room provoke anxiety, you’re not alone.
Gym anxiety, also called “gymtimidation,” is common and can affect anyone — especially now, as people are returning to gyms after working out at home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read on for help identifying common triggers for gym anxiety, as well as to learn about coping strategies and alternative workouts.
At one point or another, you may have felt anxious, intimidated, or embarrassed about working out at the gym.
Maybe you’re afraid of what other people will think of your appearance or abilities. Maybe you have no idea what to do or how to use the equipment, and you feel like people will judge you.
Maybe you’re concerned that it will be too crowded, too germy, or the machines you normally use will be taken. Or maybe you feel uneasy in the locker room dressing next to strangers.
If you’ve ever felt this way, know you’re not alone.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders and affect almost 30% of adults at some point. These feelings, which the APA defines as “anticipation of a future concern,” can manifest as muscle tension and avoidance (1).
Exercise not only benefits your physical health but also your mental health. Identifying triggers and learning coping mechanisms for gym anxiety can help you step foot in the gym with confidence, conquering those negative feelings and reaping the benefits of exercise.
Like any type of anxiety, gym anxiety can be complex and individualized, but here are some common scenarios that might trigger it:
You’re a beginner
If you’ve never worked out at a gym before, or it has been a long time, you may feel intimidated. Will everyone else be fitter than me? Will people judge me? What should I do and how do I start? Referred to as situational anxiety, these thoughts and feelings are provoked by unfamiliar situations (2).
You’ve changed gyms
Maybe you have been working out at one gym for a while but recently switched locations. Navigating the new layout, finding the locker room and restroom, locating the equipment you want to use, and getting into a new routine can provoke anxiety.
You’re having trouble using the equipment
Maybe you really want to use the leg press machine, but you can’t figure out how to adjust it. You get flustered and embarrassed.
You have to change in front of others
If you come to the gym from work or plan to go somewhere else afterward, you may have to change clothes before or after your workout. Doing this in a public locker room can make you uncomfortable.
The gym is really crowded
Especially given the pandemic, crowded indoor spaces can make many people uneasy. Post-COVID anxiety is a real thing, and the idea of returning to life as we knew it before the pandemic can evoke feelings of fear and uncertainty (
You’re a woman wanting to use the typically male-dominated weight room
Utilizing the weight room can be intimidating as a woman, even if you’re not a gym newbie.
One study including 116 college-age women found that a good portion of them was aware of the benefits of resistance training but still didn’t partake in the recommended amount.
In part, participants cited time and effort as barriers. Yet, researchers also found that feelings of judgment and intimidation, as well as a lack of knowledge about how to use the equipment, also contributed.
The study suggests that a women’s weightlifting class or women’s-only area of a gym could give them the motivation to move forward (
A handful of strategies can help you overcome gym anxiety and get in a great workout.
Do your research and get acquainted
The root of some anxiety is fear of the unknown, so gaining as much information as you can ahead of time will help you feel more confident (
Start online by researching the facility, its amenities, and class offerings. Then, go in for a tour, familiarizing yourself with the building and the staff.
Don’t feel like you have to go all in during your first visit to the gym. Pick a small goal that you’re comfortable with — spend 10 or 15 minutes on a cardio machine or just stretch — and call it a workout. Then build your way up from there.
Hire a trainer
Working with a personal trainer for even just one session can help you learn what exercises to do, how to perform them, how to set up the equipment, and how to program your workouts.
Be specific about your needs; if you only want to complete one session to familiarize yourself with the exercises and equipment, that’s a completely valid goal.
If you would like a program to follow, mention that. And then, after working on that program for a month or two, perhaps schedule another session to progress your routine to the next level.
Go with a friend
Hitting the gym with a friend or family member who knows their way around can provide comfort, support, and guidance. Plus, doing so takes part of the unknown out of the equation. After you feel comfortable working out with your buddy, venture out on your own.
Try group fitness
If you have social anxiety, group fitness classes might not be an ideal solution.
However, exercising in groups sometimes alleviates the anxiety that stems from not knowing what to do at the gym, as you can follow the instructor or fellow exercisers. Once you feel comfortable and part of the group fitness community, you may benefit from better overall mental health (6).
Plan your time and your workouts
Going in with a plan is not only key for time management and effectiveness but also takes away the fear of the unknown.
If you know exactly what exercises you want to accomplish and in what order, you’ll be able to focus on your workout — not the uncertainty of what to do next. Also, if using the locker room gives you anxiety, figure out how you can avoid it by coming dressed to work out.
Use deep breathing and positive thinking
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, center yourself on your breath, focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. This type of breathing technique, in which you actively recruit your diaphragm and expand your stomach, has been shown to lower stress and cortisol levels (
You can likewise try to reframe your negative self-talk. For instance, if you’re concerned about people judging your appearance, change your thought from “that person thinks I’m big and out of shape” to “that person is there to work out and focused on their own actions.”
It may sound overly simplified, and we get that. Still, if you can start by noticing the negative thought pattern first, then in time take steps to challenge it and switch gears to positive self-talk, you may notice you’re able to channel more courage to walk through the gym doors.
The more you go, the more confident you’ll become and the easier stepping foot inside will be. It’s natural to want to avoid the gym if it provokes anxiety, but if you find coping mechanisms that work for you and stick with it, you’ll see improvement over time.
Researchers have been studying the link between exercise and mental health disorders like anxiety for years. They’ve found clear associations between increased physical activity and lower rates of anxiety and depression.
One 2015 study found that people with anxiety and depression spent a good amount of time being sedentary — more so than the average population (
Fortunately, exercise has been shown to help manage mental health symptoms. In fact, a recent study found that regardless of what type of exercise you do, you’ll still reap the benefits of improved mental health.
Its 286 study participants were split between high intensity and low intensity exercise groups and a control group. People in both exercise groups showed greater improvements in both anxiety and depressive symptoms compared with those in the control group (9).
But while both high intensity and low intensity exercise can improve mental health, you may wonder how much exercise is needed to see results. Even a short 10-minute brisk walk has been shown to lower anxiety levels (
While overcoming gym anxiety to get a good workout in will only help boost your mental and physical health, if you’re not able to get past your gym-related anxiety, don’t let that stop you from staying physically active.
If gym anxiety is interfering with your activity levels, try these alternatives.
Work out at home
There are many great fitness apps on the market today, as well as workouts you can stream on YouTube or other websites. Even if you don’t have equipment, you can find something that works for you.
Work out outside
If the weather allows for it, go for a walk or a jog outside, play tennis or basketball, or go swimming. There are plenty of ways to stay active outside of gym walls.
Find a smaller, more inclusive gym
If you were trying a large gym before, maybe a smaller, more inclusive gym would allow you to conquer your gym anxiety. A change of setting may be just what you need to succeed.
Gym anxiety can be a normal part of starting a new journey at the gym. Focus on taking small steps forward via coping mechanisms like planning ahead to help keep your anxious feelings at bay.
If you find that your gym anxiety is debilitating or isn’t improving with effort, seek professional help.
Otherwise, take comfort in knowing that everyone at the gym was a beginner at some point. Everyone walked in those doors for the first time or overcame challenges. Your health and well-being are what matter most, and you belong where you feel most comfortable in your own skin.