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gym anxiety

5 Ways to Get Over Gym Anxiety and Work Out with Confidence

There’s no shame in being a beginner.

By Eric ArnoldUpdated December 19, 2023

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Not long ago, I was lucky enough to claim a spot in a 45-minute Power Zone cycling class at Peloton Studios in New York. I’d mentioned to my parents, later that day, that I’d enjoyed the in-studio experience, and my mother asked, “Were all the other people there perfect-looking athletes?”

First, I thanked her sarcastically for the implication that I was out of my element. Second, I quickly pointed out that it’s the exact opposite—imagine a subway car, full of random people. OK, maybe not at 2 a.m. as the bars are closing, but a Peloton class comprises people from all walks of life, all of whom look different, have different goals, and are making no comparisons to each other whatsoever. Still, my mother’s instinctive reaction speaks to the fact that it’s common to hold fears about the gym and who may be working out beside you.

Spend enough time away from one, as she has, and it’s easy to assume that everyone at the gym knows exactly what they’re doing and looks like they were plucked from Muscle Beach and can bench press the weight equivalent of a Cadillac. With one arm. And a confident wink and toothy grin at you after each rep.

The truth? Everyone is on their own journey. And everyone, of every level of fitness, encounters gym anxiety now and again. Not only is it normal, but overcoming it is easier than you’d think.

Is Gym Anxiety Real?

“There’s no way—I don’t belong here.” 

Those are the words of someone experiencing anxiety upon entering a gym—but not just anyone. That’s what Peloton instructor Christine D’Ercole thought to herself just recently upon entering a gym near her home. “I had to remind myself that I’m new here. I’m not afraid of the machines, it’s just new people. You have to own the idea that you’re new.”

So, if a world track cycling champion like Christine can have gym anxiety, anyone can—we all get it. (In fact, many people choose to work out at home with the Peloton App, Bike or Bike+, Tread, or Row for this very reason—Peloton will never judge you.)

Of course, the beauty of the Peloton App is that you can take it anywhere, including the gym. And once you get comfortable, you may feel energized and motivated simply by being around others who are working hard.

That’s why Christine points out that owning your newness is critical to overcoming anxiety and progressing your fitness.

Still, gym anxiety is like any other type of anxiety—it varies, and you might experience it differently from a friend, partner, or perfect specimen pumping iron at Muscle Beach (or Christine’s local gym). Left unchecked, anxiety can impede your progress.

Why You May Feel Anxiety About the Gym

First of all, remember that no one in the gym is judging you. You’re more likely to attract an unwanted assessment in places you frequent more regularly, like a grocery store or a bar.

“No one is looking at you as much as you think they are,” says Christine. “They’re counting their reps and maintaining their focus.”

In fact, the reason for gym anxiety is one you probably haven’t thought of: not knowing where to begin, especially if you’re new. Maybe you don’t know whether to start with stretching or cardio. Maybe you don’t have a clue what aspect of fitness you want to work on. And if you’re going to a gym at a crowded time (say, after work), and there’s a wait for certain machines or pieces of equipment, that can only add to the stress since you don’t want to get in someone else’s way.

“Disarm that whole energy of intimidation by saying, ‘Hi, I’m new, can you help me?’ That invites someone who really wants to teach, to help you,” Christine says. “That was a huge learning moment for me when I ended up in a gym.”

Just remember: We’ve all been there. And all these feelings can be overcome.

How to Get Over Gym Anxiety

Just as people come in all different shapes and sizes, so does gym anxiety. Fortunately, the methods for working through it, no matter the variety or severity, are pretty much all the same. Follow these tips, and you’ll find gym anxiety much easier to get over than the feeling of walking into the eighth-grade dance. 

1. Know the Lay of the Land

When you join a gym, don’t just swipe your credit card and come back tomorrow. Ask for a tour. Learn where the locker rooms are. Find out what the busiest times are. Ask how to work any piece of unfamiliar-looking equipment. If you know when you want to go to the gym and what you want to do there, you’ll feel ready to work out, not anxious.

2. Be Positive

Of course, don’t drag yourself to the gym as if you’re headed to the DMV. But Christine points out that overcoming anxiety is about turning around the “what ifs” about negative outcomes to positive ones.

“Instead of, ‘What if I embarrass myself?’ What if you ask for help?” she says. “What if you didn’t judge yourself? What if I can do this? What if I make a friend? What if everything goes right? What if it’s ok if I drop that weight? Shift your mindset and catch yourself in that moment of anxiety and change the sentence—change the words.”

3. Have a Plan for Each Day

Wandering aimlessly into a gym is like showing up at the Magic Kingdom with no game plan to, say, hit Space Mountain first or the Jungle Cruise on the opposite side of the park. With no idea of what you want to do, you won’t get far—your anxiety will take over. It can be as simple as Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays being your strength days, and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays being for cardio. Have a plan, and anxiety won’t get in your way. 

If you’re working out with the Peloton App, you can even add classes to your schedule and plan stacked classes ahead of time. For a curated program of classes, be sure to check out Peloton programs, which are set up based on your goals and interests.

Even if you don’t have access to Peloton hardware in your gym, you may still be able to take Peloton classes and track some of your workouts on the Peloton App. App+ Members have the ability to pair any third-party treadmill with the Peloton App, meaning they can view metrics such as incline, speed, pace, and distance from walking, running, or Tread Bootcamp classes on their profiles in real time (and yes, these workouts count toward Peloton challenges and badges.)

4. Have a Backup Plan

Were you planning to hop on an exercise bike for a 30-minute ride using the Peloton App, but all the equipment is taken? Did someone else snag the last set of 15 lb weights? You can wait, but if you’re in a time crunch, it’s nice to have a plan B. You can bookmark classes in the Peloton App to take out the guesswork when you need to change up your plan on the fly. Forgot headphones? This is a great time to try out a Peloton Gym workout, which doesn’t require that you listen to instructor audio.

5. Use the Buddy System

Having someone you can be accountable to is a great way to avoid anxiety—especially if your friend, neighbor, or family member is on the same fitness trajectory. Go to the gym together, share your workout plans, and encourage each other. In fact, that’s how Christine became an instructor. She went to the gym with a friend who needed support and took her first cycling class. A month later, she was a certified instructor—and the rest is history. 

Be the Best Version of Yourself

If you enjoyed watching Ted Lasso, you might remember a scene in which Ted, a football coach in charge of an English soccer team, tells a sportswriter that the wins and losses don’t matter. What does matter is helping the players be the best versions of themselves, on and off the field. In a way, that’s the same as overcoming gym anxiety. Set goals for yourself, no one else—because, frankly, no one’s even paying attention to your fitness objectives except for you.

But that also means you needn’t change who you are. If a gym is truly an uncomfortable space for you because of anxiety or some other reason, don’t force it. 

“Walking out of a place that you don’t like because of its energy isn’t the wrong thing,” Christine points out. “If that’s not the right space for you, that’s ok.” Just find a different space, she says, and don’t let what other people might think of you—but probably don’t—stand in the way of your self-care.

“Enter every situation with an attitude of curiosity instead of one of judgment,” says Christine. “We judge ourselves, we judge everything around us, and we can shift our mindset and catch ourselves in that moment of anxiety.” That’s the key to becoming the best version of yourself.

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