Conquering Gym Anxiety At the Rec Center and Beyond

I can’t stress enough how great it is to be able to have access to a facility like the Umass Amherst Rec Center. Gyms across America are either extremely overpriced or lacking in resources. Not to mention, the facility is absolutely beautiful with ellipticals facing the mountains on one end and the hypnotic transmuting of colorful light over the ellipticals on the other.  At this point I regularly workout at the rec, last semester I went almost every day and despite all of the time spent there it still intimidates me. I try to discreetly wend my way over to whichever machine I want to use, preferably one residing in a corner, and avoid eye contact with all the other gym goers. I would say that despite my generally consistent workout routine I am not an athletic person and I still feel displaced in these athletic settings.

Growing up I was always picked last in gym class, and whichever dodgeball team got saddled with me had to accept the fact that I was going to try to purposefully get myself removed from the game. During the mile run I would hide behind the bleachers and I refused to do “floor work” (wheelbarrow, spider crawl, inchworm, bear crawl you name it.) In the gym locker rooms, I would shuffle nervously to the bathroom stalls to change as the others compared colorful sports bras, seemingly unfettered by the all- consuming insecurity I felt. (Looking back now I know that everyone was probably insecure and I was simply sensationalizing my own victimhood at the hands of gym class.) Since I was overweight, a lot of the sporting goods stores didn’t have pretty things for me to wear. I would be stuck in one of my dad’s red socks t- shirts and since I hated the way my legs looked I would wear long restrictive sweatpants. As I sat out of games or watched people try their best during the sprinting tests I honestly felt bitter. I always felt excluded in athletic spaces which are inherently competitive.

During my first two years of college there was a lot happening around me and I decided to start exercising as a way to distract myself from stress. Still to this day, exercise for me is more about mental rather than physical health. Exercise has improved my abilities to cope with anxiety, improved my focus, self- confidence and motivation. I must stress that my workout routine started small, and by that I mean I could barely get through warm ups. You can acknowledge your own limitations without limiting yourself. I wouldn’t say I have completely conquered my gym anxiety, but I have developed coping mechanisms that I think readers will find helpful.

Coping Mechanism #1:

You can start at home and on a budget! I was too scared to go to a gym at first so I started with workout videos and gradually built up confidence before I even entered a gym. I highly recommend this route for those who do not already have a workout routine. Many people get gym memberships thinking the money they spent will motivate them to go the gym. Don’t make this mistake! If you are just starting to implement routine where there is none... expect to lose motivation. It takes time to form habits and it is much easier to say “no excuses” when your workout space is in the privacy of your own home. Also, for those of us who struggle with our body image, you feel more comfortable in privacy and you aren’t distracted by what you look like. On a budgeting level, you can easily make your own workout at home with YouTube videos and I suggest beginners to avoid wasting money on fancy athletic wear, gym memberships, or sneakers until you have established a routine. A dance/ zumba fitness channel I highly recommend is The Fitness Marshall since it makes working out fun and accessible to those who have no experience.

Coping Mechanism #2:

Take a buddy! I workout regularly with my twin sister and that really adds to my sense of security at the Rec Center. Find a friend, family member, or partner who is going to inspire you and make you feel safe. For me personally I think it is ideal to workout with someone who is at a similar fitness level so that you don’t feel like you are holding anyone back. But, I know some prefer to workout with their athletic friends for motivation. Do what works for you!

Coping Mechanism #3:

Avoid trying new machines/ weights alone! I say this mainly for safety but also to save someone from the humiliation I have felt in the past. For the longest time, I only used the elliptical and treadmill and I would wait to do pilates in the privacy of my own dorm. Being judged by seasoned gym- goers is one of the major components of gym anxiety and the worst feeling is dagger- like glares when you clearly don’t know what you are doing. If you don’t know something, ask for help! The Rec Center offers Personal Training opportunities which include fitness assessments and personal packages/ sessions in which you can learn proper use of machines and how to get the most out of your workout. Personal fitness programs at the rec are fee- based and not part of the basic membership but since we can go to the rec center for free all year long I do not think this is an unreasonable investment. If you don’t want to pay, ask a knowledgeable friend!

Coping Mechanism #4:

Join a Class! I’ve really enjoyed my time in classes like  Zumba, Barre and Kettlebell Burn. I think that the sense of community you get in a class and the positive encouragement from a trained instructor can really help ease the tension one feels at the gym. Campus Recreation offers several different class formats and over 100 class sessions per week during Spring and Fall semesters. Unlike the personal training, these classes are included in the Campus Recreation membership.

Coping Mechanism #5:

Prioritize Yourself! I know it is easier said than done, but at the end of the day you are at the rec center for yourself. No one is going to leave the rec center and tell their friends “I saw this person who really looked stupid trying to do burpees” and if there is such a person, than their opinion is irrelevant. The gym is not this invite-only soiree for Instagram models and kale-crazed Ken dolls. Everyone has the right to be there. Just put your headphones on and tune in with yourself, you got this.


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