“Panic at the thought of doing a thing is a challenge to do it.” ~Henry S. Haskins
Overcoming The Fear Of Going to The Gym
My throat went dry, my knees locked and beads of sweat began to form on my brow, with any capacity for speech fading fast as a blinding terror gripped my heart. I couldn’t see straight or think straight. All I wanted to do was run away as fast as I could as far as I could. No, this isn’t a description of my first attempt at rock climbing without a safety line nor is a recollection of the first time I learned I was going to be a father – (although that was pretty terrifying nonetheless!) What I am describing is the first time I set foot inside a gym as a self-conscious and lanky teenager. To this day, with all the ridiculously insane things that I have done over the years, the mind numbing anxiety of my first weeks at the gym still stands as one of the biggest fears I have had to overcome. Given my accomplishments as a natural bodybuilder and personal trainer you might be tempted to believe someone like me was born with a love for gyms. Especially if you took into consideration the fact that I not only grew up surrounded by bodybuilders- (my father, brother and cousin were all aspiring bodybuilders at one point or another) but that some of my earliest memories are that of my back yard being converted by my older brother into a neighborhood gym. It might indeed seem that I was born and bred to workout in a gym but that pedigree did nothing allay the fear I had of venturing into such a place. So great was my anxiety that when I decided that I had to join a gym to achieve the goals I had established for myself, the first thing I did was formulate a pre-gym plan. I invested some of my savings in a pair of dumbbells to start training at home. The idea was to build myself up some so as to not look too pathetic in a gym surrounded by god-like figures of physical perfection. Neurotic? Perhaps but my beginnings as an insecure 125lb teenager have gone a long way in helping me understand why people are afraid to set foot in a gym.
Experts talk quite a lot about why people don’t exercise. Lack of time has been cited as the main excuse given by those polled in countless self-reporting surveys- but human emotions from shame, to fear add a sizable error margin to such estimates. Most people do not answer honestly in a survey about aspects of their lives that they feel ashamed of and fear of going to the gym is an emotion that few are willing to admit. The irony is that after over twenty years in the business I can say with authority that most of the people in great shape who adorn the pages of fitness magazines and television infomercials probably found the gym to be an intimidating place when they first started training as well.
Studies show that 60% of the American population don’t get enough physical activity while more than a quarter of adults don’t exercise at all. While fitness club owners do their utmost to entice people to sign up only a mere 14.7% of adults aged 35 to 54 had gym memberships as compared to 17.6 % of adults aged 18-34 and only 12.6% for those over 55. It’s enough to turn a very healthy profit but obviously not enough to stop the growing numbers of overweight or obese Americans as the overwhelming majority of adults would not set foot in a fitness facility. What would account for such large numbers but fear? Of course- the dropout rate of those who do purchase memberships is sizable as well- a British survey found the dropout rate to be as high as 60% with only 20% working out more than once a month and I can say from personal experience that it isn’t a matter of economics or lack of motivation. A lot of people stop going to the gym because they are terrified, ashamed and embarrassed to be there. Some of those fears are rational and some of them are not- but they exist nonetheless and until the fitness industry addresses this almost taboo subject, most of the population is going to continue to stay away.
What are we afraid of:
Gym Fear Number 1: Gyms Are Filled With People Who Look So Much Better Than You Do
It is no secret that gyms use images of near perfect bodies to promote their facilities. The idea pivots around a marketing strategy focused on encouraging you to sign up after seeing someone else- who is usually smiling and looking the very picture of self-confidence, enjoying the body and the fitness level that you most likely don’t have. It’s a strategy that works but not for everyone. For many, the very sight of a youthful man or woman with sleek and slender muscles from shoulders to shin fills them with a sense of dread. Instead of prompting them to make a change and get such a body themselves, the reverse occurs and they become even more apprehensive about joining a gym.
The resulting inertia is perfectly understandable. Why torture yourself by going to a place where you think you will feel worse about how you look? Women especially abhor the image of being trapped in rooms filled with taut and tight young bodies when they are struggling with their own self-image. Men who are not athletic feel comfortable around other men who are in such a physical arena. You might be quite successful in other aspects of life so why go to a place filled with hulking monsters, and cover model Adonises?
As anyone going to the average gym or fitness facility in America can attest- the overwhelming majority of men and women who frequent them seldom look anything like the people you see in the ads. On the contrary, they are usually everyday people who have overcome their fears and inertia to try to make positive changes in their lives. Now there may be several physical specimens who look like they were plucked straight out of a comic book- but they are always a tiny minority unless it is a very specialized facility. Human nature doesn’t do very well with statistics and so a cursory glance at a gym floor won’t necessarily find these figures to be true. If you are insecure about how you look, you will tend to immediately focus on the four or five people in stellar shape and ignore the hundred others that don’t look that different from the way you do. It’s human nature, but a factor that must be overcome nonetheless if you are ever going to make a change in your life. Additionally, the less in shape people there are in a gym, the less likely you are as well to get in great shape yourself- a fact that we explore further on in the article.
Gym Fear Number 2: Gyms Are Filled With Machines And Weights That You Don’t Know How To Use
For most people, walking into a gym is akin to sitting in the cockpit of a modern airliner for the first tone. Both scenarios find you confronted by an alarmingly vast sprawl of equipment that you have no idea how to use. There are two fears that immediately spring to mind from not knowing your way around the gym equipment-with one being far more powerful than the other. The first, and interestingly enough, the least paralyzing is a fear that you will injure yourself by using a machine incorrectly or lifting weights with bad form. As much as this fear is somewhat rational one, the fear that stops most people from venturing past the safety line of easy-to-use aerobic machines is the fear of embarrassment after using a machine incorrectly. Our sense of embarrassment is far more powerful at putting on the brakes on our actions than we give it credit for- and is sometimes even more powerful than our fear of getting hurt. A look at information gathered from welfare applicants in Mexico is a perfect example of how powerful embarrassment can be. Applicants were asked to list their incomes and standard of living to determine whether or not they qualified for public assistance. Now most of us would think that in all the cases people would say that they were worse off than they really are. Stories of welfare fraud are always in the headlines and many do indeed omit owning cars and other expensive items when filling out application forms. But what caseworkers discovered during home visits was that many would under-report their level of poverty, even though it meant getting less potential financial aid. Many lied about having basic necessities like running water, electricity, a stove or a refrigerator- apparently out of shame and embarrassment. People had no problems asking for help but at the same time would rather get less help than appear to be completely destitute.
The same applies to those coming into a gym not knowing how to use a machine. Everyone else appears to know what everything does and how to use it- and for many it would be humiliating to use a machine the wrong way and look like a complete idiot. Some would prefer to stay out of shape and locked in a cycle of misery and self-loathing than feel stupid in front of others, even though on a rational plain, no one would really care that much and most would probably correct you and help out without thinking much of it. Over the years I have heard hundreds of people express how awkward they felt when they didn’t know how to use a machine, especially when everyone else seemed to know exactly what to do. The result is that most head straight for the aerobics section to use the less intimidating machines, but unfortunately losing body fat and toning is best achieved through weight training. (See my article on why aerobics are not best for weight loss.) Thus beings a cycle of frustration at going to the gym, spending hours doing aerobics and not seeing much in terms of results. Naturally, motivation begins to lag and if you are like most people, you simply stop going.
Gym Fear Number 3: Going To The Gym Is An Admission That You Are Not Pleased With How You Look
It is unfortunately a little recognized fact that most of the people we look up to in the magazines and websites as exemplars of ‘the perfect body’ got where they are now because they didn’t like how they looked. If I wasn’t painfully skinny as a teenager and woefully self-conscious about it I would never have gone on to be a success in the natural bodybuilding world. A scenario of insecurity that holds true for most of my peers, both male and female. Give me someone in absolutely remarkable shape and I will show you someone who is attempting on some level to overcompensate for some degree of insecurity. Some were skinny like myself to start out, while others were overweight- or perceived themselves as such. Nevertheless, they all were at one time unhappy about their appearance and the only difference between them and everyone else is that they channeled that negative energy into creating something positive. A lesson for anyone disgruntled about the way you look. For me it was being painfully skinny. For others it might be that they were overweight. In either case there is usually some degree of insecurity that drives us to create the bodies that line the pages of most fitness publications and television shows. The actual act of admitting to yourself that you don’t like how you look and that you want to change is easy- but going to a gym where (you feel) like everyone knows you are there because you are either overweight or underweight is an entirely different animal altogether and can make many blanch at the idea of walking into a training area.
So how do you overcome these fears? Here are some useful tips:
1. Hire a trainer
Hiring a good personal trainer can help many make the leap required to go to the gym, as you have someone who can guide you through the potentially scary halls and show you how to use the equipment safely and correctly. Having a personal trainer also makes it a little easier to not focus on the people around you- which for some helps a great deal. Personal training can be expensive-with the price of a good personal trainer in New York City ranging anywhere from $$80-$120 per session and they aren’t all created equal. However if you have the opportunity to hire an experienced and knowledgeable trainer it will be well worth the fee.
2. Go to the gym with a friend or loved one
One of the best and most economical ways to overcome the fear of going to the gym is to go with a partner. Enlisting friend, loved one or family member not only helps you overcome your fears but can also increase the likelihood of your sticking to the program. A University of Indiana study of married couples who joined health clubs together found that couples who worked out separately had a 50% drop out rate after a year, compared to the 10% dropout rate among couples who went to the gym together, regardless of whether they did the same type of exercises.  I am certain that the extra motivation and accountability that comes with having someone with you at the gym makes a difference. But I am also certain that the prospect of not having to go into a new environment alone and the feeling of safety that comes with having someone you know at your side also has a lot to do with the increase in retention rates as well.
3. Choose a gym based on its training atmosphere- not its social scene.
If you are insecure about how you look the best bet is always to choose a gym that is as untrendy as possible. The trendy places tend to be more pick up joints that workout facilities and many find that kind of atmosphere uncomfortable- especially women that don’t want to be ogled and hit on by men at the club. It’s not uncommon to go to a trendy gym and see women training in skimpy outfits with full makeup on or men who spend more time looking at everyone else than they do exercising. As a rule the more serious the establishment, the less attention the gym-goers pay to anyone else as everyone is very much focused on their own workout. I have only found those places to also be the most helpful in terms of people taking the time to answer your questions or help you out if you need it.
One final and important note is the fear and sense of intimidation that many beginners can feel around men or women who lift a lot more than you do (and at times make some noise doing so.) Some gyms have gone so far as to ban people who make too much noise while training and I don’t believe this to be a logical response. True some make a lot of noise while training so as to draw attention to themselves and we can all recognize such behavior for what it is. However
The problem is that we tend to fear what we don’t know or don’t understand, and in so doing deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from those that truly can help us achieve our goals. Some people do overdo it and you can easily spot the ones that are making noise to attract attention to themselves very much in the way a two year old throws a tantrum to get a little bit more notice.
That being said you can’t lift 500 plus pounds off the floor without making some noise and the best way to overcome your fears to people that do lift pretty heavy weights is to talk to them! If they can truly move some serious poundages, they might have a lot of advice that will can help you with your own workouts. Most are more than happy to talk about what they are doing or working out in general. It’s actually how I got my start. If I hadn’t plucked up enough courage to speak to some of the bigger guys at the gym all those years ago, I would never be where I am today! Looking back, walking into the gym was one of the scariest times of my life, but I hardly have words to express how much it was worth overcoming my fears. Try it- you may be surprised by what you will achieve!
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Kevin Richardson is a former 125 lb kid who overcame his fear of going to the gym and became a natural bodybuilding champion and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training . You can download a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.
1. Center for Disease Control And Prevention
2. SGMA International-Tracking the Fitness Movement 2002 edition
3. IHRSA Guide for Lenders and Investors
4. Britons Are Leaving The Gym- Sunday Times 2008