If you feel stressed, worried, or tense before going to the gym, you might have gym anxiety. While this is not a technical diagnosis, people who feel mildly intimidated by the gym or experience social anxiety can feel as though making it into the gym is too difficult to manage.
While anxiety should be addressed with a mental health care provider, there are some strategies that can help you feel more comfortable and ease you into a gym routine.
Up to 13% of people have a lifetime prevalence of experiencing social anxiety. Symptoms include a fear of people watching and judging you in public.
Symptoms of Gym Anxiety
The symptoms of gym anxiety likely feel similar to those of social anxiety. Symptoms range, with some individuals experiencing many symptoms and others experiencing one or two.
Feeling anxious before going to the gym doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder, but you should speak to a mental health care provider if your symptoms interfere with your ability to perform daily activities. Symptoms of gym anxiety include:
- Panic, nervousness, or restlessness before going to the gym
- Pain, cramping, nausea, or other gastrointestinal issues
- Avoidance or excuse-making
- Overbearing worry about going to the gym
- Rapid breathing and sweating
- Self-consciousness and self-doubt
The symptoms of gym anxiety likely make you feel unmotivated to exercise. After all, if you’re experiencing stomach pain or nausea or are overcome with negative thoughts, it can make it very difficult to focus on a training session.
Why You Might Feel Anxious at the Gym
There are many reasons why going to the gym might feel intimidating. It is a place filled with many other people, several of whom may be more experienced than you. Perhaps some of your anxiety is connected to your self-esteem or how you feel about your physical appearance or capabilities.
“With regard to gym anxiety, it’s important to acknowledge why there is such anxiety,” says psychiatrist Dr. Howard Pratt, D.O., Behavioral Health Medical Director at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. (CHI).
“Most people are very aware of their reasons. For some, the anxiety is about going to a gym where it seems like everyone is in great shape and they are self-conscious about their own current physique. For others, it can be about having to deal with the physical demands of exercise and/or the soreness and pain afterward. So, there can be numerous associated anxieties coupled with going to the gym.”
Unknown factors such as not knowing how to use equipment, being unversed in gym etiquette, or feeling like you don’t know which exercises to do can create a feeling of being anxious and unprepared. If you experience gym anxiety, you might feel like others will judge you or that you don’t belong.
Slowly and carefully easing into facing your gym anxiety fears can help you build up the confidence you need to feel like you can conquer the gym.
How to Overcome Gym Anxiety
There are practical and functional ways of working on your gym anxiety. Practical methods include gathering knowledge and planning ahead for your gym visit so you know what you want to accomplish. Other methods use psychological strategies to reduce your fears and help you become more comfortable with the gym.
In a practical sense, you may feel better if you are fully prepared for your experience at the gym. Here are some ways you can prepare yourself for the gym that may help ease some of your anxiety:
- Get a tour: When you sign up for your gym membership or are curious about getting one, you can ask an employee to give you a tour. If walking into the gym feels like too much, try phoning or emailing to request a tour during less busy hours.
- Ask questions: Either during your tour or through email, ask questions about how to use the machines, whether or not you need to pre-book equipment, and if there is anything important you should know regarding gym etiquette or rules.
- Make a plan: Plan what exercises you will do during your visit. Having a prepared workout plan can help you focus on what you want to accomplish and give you some direction. It may be a good idea to have a backup movement for any exercise that requires a specific machine just in case it’s in use. Keeping your workout simple and straightforward with exercises you already are comfortable doing is best.
- Practice in advance: To ensure proper form and reduce gym anxiety practice some of the movements you plan to do ahead of time. If you are going to do a resistance training workout, for instance, practice the exercise by following along with step-by-step instructions from a trusted resource. You can use your bodyweight or use a broomstick to practice any barbell work you plan to do.
- Write it down: Write out your workout plan along with all of the equipment you plan to use. When you get to the gym, locate your necessary equipment and either gather it all in one place or make any necessary adjustments to your plan based on equipment availability. Remember to return all of your equipment to where it belongs at the end of your workout.
Research has found social anxiety leads to an avoidance of sport or athletic participation that may be observed by other people. This could make going to the gym very challenging for people with social anxiety, particularly women.
Try Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is an effective strategy for treating anxiety. “[Exposure therapy is] about exposing a person to the source of their anxiety or to the context of that source of anxiety without the intention of producing anxiety. By doing so, in time anxiety from that particular source is made extinct,” explains Pratt.
The concept of exposure therapy helps you gradually face your fears to overcome them.
Dr. Howard Pratt
A good approach to tackling gym anxiety is to take things slowly.
Therapists often use exposure therapy in their practices, and it is a good idea to discuss exposure therapy with a mental health care provider. However, you can use some strategies on your own to combat mild gym-specific anxiety.
Avoiding going to the gym because of your anxious feelings will help you avoid those feelings in the short term, but it won’t empower you to overcome your gym anxiety.
Exposure therapy is often used to help people overcome phobias, but it can be adapted for any type of anxious fear, including gym anxiety. Two types of exposure include:
- Imaginal exposure: Visualizing your fear. For instance, by picturing yourself going to the gym, performing your workout, and allowing yourself to feel the feelings that arise.
- In vivo exposure: Facing your fear in person. For instance, entering into the gym for a tour or first visit, even if you do not complete a workout.
The American Psychological Association explains that giving in to your fears instead of facing them may cause them to worsen. Facing your fears through tried and tested strategies like exposure therapy can encourage you to overcome them.
How to Use Exposure Therapy for Gym Anxiety
To put exposure therapy into practice, you can choose from these methods:
- Graded exposure: Write down your fears of going to the gym in order from the most difficult to mild. Begin facing these fears starting with the mildest and working up to the most difficult. An example would be going for a tour, then to a designated single area with a couple of pieces of equipment. Lastly, you could try incorporating more equipment and accessing more spaces in the gym.
- Flooding: Flooding is the opposite of graded exposure. You would face your biggest challenging fear first, then work toward the mildest.
- Systematic desensitization: Incorporate relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, or muscle tension-relaxation while facing your fears. This practice aims to help your brain associate the fears with being at ease in the situation. Try practicing deep breathing while you either visualize or personally experience your gym fears.
“Take note that even if you don’t achieve that intended goal, you are making progress by getting closer to it. If you are a person who has anxiety around people, go to the gym at a less busy time and then slowly move that arrival time to a period when there is more social traffic,” said Dr. Pratt.
When to Seek Help
If your anxiety seems insurmountable or you are concerned about your mental health in any way, it’s wise to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
“Let’s consider the possibility that some self-driven efforts to overcome gym anxiety over time come to fail,” says Pratt. “In this case, the answer is to get professional help. In doing so, you will find out you are not alone and don’t have to deal with things by yourself.”
“Start by reaching out to a therapist. If you don’t know how to reach out to a therapist talk to your family doctor who can direct and guide you. Just taking that first step to reach out can make you feel more vulnerable but go ahead and do it. You are worth it. More often than not you will be surprised by the resources you have available to you and the support you will receive,” says Pratt.
A Word From Verywell
Entering a busy place filled with new and challenging experiences is difficult. Addressing gym anxiety by slowly overcoming your fears can help you build confidence and feel comfortable in the gym environment.
Exercise can also help relieve symptoms of anxiety—chances are you won’t be perfect on your first attempt at overcoming gym anxiety. Prioritizing your health and learning more about what helps you function at your healthiest takes time.