Is your gym anxiety very real right now? It makes sense, given January is a time so many of us opt for a change-up in our workout routine.
Whether you're giving weight training or running tips for beginners a go, everyone seems to be celebrating their newfound exercise motivation. That said, the gym can be an anxiety-inducing place. After all, you're moving your sweaty body around in front of strangers, and if you struggle with self love, that can be incredibly daunting.
The unfortunate reality is that women in particular have a long history of feeling unwelcomed in fitness spaces. Even in 2020, research from Penn State University shows that the gender gym gap is fuelled by women's worries about a lack of knowledge or confidence, discomfort in crowded spaces or receiving unsolicited advice from male peers.
We don't write that to put you off, but because it's so important to know that you aren't alone. To break the cycle of gym anxiety, we need change from the fitness industry, including more welcoming and inclusive spaces. But it's also important to know that you deserve to take up space, and the best way to feel comfortable doing that is to be armed with knowledge.
So let these tips on overcoming gym anxiety from fitness expert Stef Williams, founder of Stef Fit and the WeGlow app, help.
5 tips for overcoming gym anxiety this month
1. Accept that you might not be at your fittest
Bottom line: it's ok to not be the strongest, fittest person in the room, Stef shares.
"Regardless of the type of workouts you enjoy in the gym, any beginner or person coming back from an extended break might feel uncomfortable with their current level of strength and proficiency," she explains. "However, that doesn’t mean you’ll never build it back to the same level, or even surpass it with time!"
Thanks to muscle memory, you’ll likely regain your strength faster than it took you to achieve it in the first instance, she reckons. And beginners even benefit from something called newbie gains, where you grow muscle at a faster rate than experienced lifters. Just remember: it's ok to struggle or be challenged, and you shouldn't compare yourself to old you or others in the gym.
Top tip: Stef advises starting with a lower weight and reducing the total number of exercises or sets for each exercise in your workout. Oh, and check out our beginner's guide to weight training and how much weight you should start lifting at the gym, while you're at it.
2. Be patient
In other words, don't do too much too soon. "I know it’s frustrating to feel like you’re not progressing at the rate you want, but being patient is vital," Stef explains.
Remember that above all, exercise is a form of self-care: it’s about working with your body to feel your best self, the PT shares. "Work with the strength and energy you have now and build this up over time – if you’re consistent, you’ll soon be back to where you were," she adds.
Top tip: Don’t be tempted to do too much too soon. "You’ll only increase your likelihood of getting an injury and could end up spending more time out of the gym than in it," Stef shares. You'll also likely get delayed onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMs, if you don't nail the all-important workout recovery.
3. Have a plan and structure in place
That way, you won't feel overwhelmed. "There's so much choice and so many options in the gym that even in normal circumstances, it can feel overwhelming," she says.
Top tip: Now more than ever, it’s important to go in with a plan and a structure you can follow. Stef is easing herself back into the gym by following the Intermediate 3-day gym programme from her app We Glow. Our round-up of the best fitness apps and gym workouts will help, too.
4. Keep in mind that habits get you further
Still searching for the exercise motivation you lost, ahem, this time last year? Short answer: don't.
"I get asked how to stay motivated all the time," Stef shares. "My advice is always the same: I’ve built my routine on sustainable habits, because from experience, relying on motivation doesn’t get you very far," she explains.
Top tip: She reckons that a huge part of building a sustainable workout routine is about finding a type of exercise you enjoy and finding a routine that works for you. "You don’t need to start going to the gym five days a week right now; start with small weekly goals – like developing a morning routine where you fit in some movement – and build up from there if you want to," she recommends. "Soon enough, those gym sessions will feel like a habit and you won’t be sitting there waiting for motivation to strike."
5. Zone out from others
This one's important. "I know it can feel like everyone is staring at you in the gym, but I promise they’re not", Stef says. "People are far too preoccupied with themselves to focus on you."
Also make sure to wear your favourite pair of workout leggings and weightlifting shoes or running trainers, depending on what exercise you're doing. "There’s nothing worse than constantly adjusting your clothes when working out, worrying about that camel toe or having to re-jig that sports bra strap," Stef explains.
Top tip: Always pick a gym outfit that makes you feel comfortable and confident – "this will help you keep your focus on your actual workout," she shares. "Likewise, nothing helps me zone out from others more than a good playlist – the right music can make all the difference." So do pick an epic playlist before your visit.
So there you have it - your complete guide to gym anxiety, sorted.
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Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.
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