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8 Ways to Overcome Gym Anxiety So You Can Be a Fitness Warrior

Going to the gym is supposed to make you feel better about yourself. You’re getting your ass out of bed and working out, and you should feel good about being productive and working on your health.

Emily Cook Harris, a personal trainer, lifestyle coach and founder of EMPOWERED, can testify that a lot of people have a fear that others are judging them at the gym, which often stems from the anxiety that they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re not as fit as others, etc. 

Even though the machinery and fitness buffs might seem intimidating, if you let that stop you from going to the gym, you’re the only one losing in that situation. So don’t let it stop you! Try some of these tips to actively overcome that anxiety.

1. Dress for success

Make sure you wear something you feel comfortable in at the gym.  

“While I never was concerned about my weight, I do have large boobs for a smaller/athletic-built body. This means I’m spilling out of sports bras or there’s a lot of back bulge around sports bras since my boobs are so large,” says Jordan Ettien, a recent grad from Millersville University. “This made me embarrassed to wear tanks to the gym because my bra was so tight.”

When you realize you’re not feeling yourself in your outfit, you do have the power to change that, and it can make a big difference.

“What I do now is only buy sports bras that are strappy in the back! Target has a ton. It gives the same support as my sports bras, but the straps ease off the pressure from the bra line, so nothing is being squeezed,” Jordan says. “Now I love wearing all my cute tanks to the gym!”

Also, cute or comfy (whatever you prefer) workout gear can give you an added boost of confidence when you hit the gym. “Wear something that makes you feel good and be proud that you showed up for yourself,” Harris says.  

Whether that means a trendy outfit from Fabletics or a tank with a fun saying, when you look good, you feel good.

2. Plan your workout

Wandering aimlessly not sure of what to do doesn’t exactly boost confidence, so go in with a plan.

“It can be overwhelming to walk into a room with a bunch of people and equipment, so the best thing is to have a game plan,” says Harris. “This helps you be more confident that you’re there for a purpose: to work on getting stronger, faster, healthier, and you can hone in on accomplishing it.”

Harris suggests asking for a tour of the gym so you know what’s available and can plan better. If you’re still unsure when you go to work out, she says you can get on some cardio equipment and do a light warm-up while you settle in and scope out the gym. After you familiarize yourself with the gym, you can better decide how and where you want to spend your time.

“Know your landing location. If you’d like to do strength work, then find an open spot, gather any equipment you may need (a dumbbell, medicine ball, bench, etc.) and stay put.” Harris says. “Then you can focus on just doing the exercises rather than running all around the weight room, feeling like people are looking at you. Just go in the zone, focus on moving correctly and be proud of how you’re getting stronger one rep at a time.”

Having a plan gives you a specific purpose besides just vaguely “going to work out.” 

3. Exercise with others

Meet up with a good friend and go to the gym together. When you’re with someone, it might not feel like all eyes are just on you. You could also choose a class where you’re just one in a herd of people.

“I like to do classes because then I get to focus on the instructor and get feedback,” says Regan Levin, a freshman at Stanford. “Or I go with friends so we can do things together and I have a buddy instead of being alone.”

Harris also suggested hiring a personal trainer, whose job is to teach you how to work out, help you feel comfortable working out and help you with your goals.

4. Choose when you go wisely

Routine often makes us feel more comfortable, so going to the gym at a consistent time can help ease the anxiety about going to the gym. Plus, the same people might be there at that time, so you’ll get used to the group that’s around you. Figure out when it’s super crowded and when it’s less busy and plan accordingly.

“Usually, I try to go to the gym at times when it’s not super populated. This way I have more room to workout, more machines are open and I feel less self-conscious,” Regan says. “It’s a win-win-win.”  

If you go right after class, it’ll probably be packed, but right before it closes, right when it opens if you’re a morning person (which most college students aren’t) or a time when everyone’s in class might be a good option to avoid the crowds.

Related: 8 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Workout

5. Do workouts that you like

If you’re enjoying the gym, you’re probably paying less attention to those around you. When you’re in the zone and feel good about your workout, other people will just be a backdrop.

“The best thing to do is try different kinds of workouts and see which you enjoy,” says Harris. “Maybe a cycling class is for you, or a pilates workout, an at-home yoga video, weight lifting, a bodyweight workout you can do anywhere, a hip-hop class, a running route outside, or all of the above and more! There are so many great ways to get moving and you’ll never know what you like until you try.” 

“At home, I go to an all-women’s gym, so coming to school and having to share the gym with guys was really intimidating at first,” says Makena Gera, a freshman at Marist College. “I like to use the weights and the machines, but for a while, I was too embarrassed to use them. After a while I realized that I couldn’t let feeling embarrassed stop me from doing something that makes me feel good.” 

People who like working out aren’t crazy, they’ve just figured out what they like to do. 

6. Focus on yourself

Being a bit self-centered at the gym is totally acceptable. You’re not there for other people—you’re there for you.

“Going to the gym is something you do for yourself, so my advice is to just try to stay focused on you and not look at what anyone else may be doing,” Makena says. “Try not to look around the gym or compare yourself to others. I know it might sound silly, but just wearing a baseball hat can help you focus on yourself and make you feel less self-conscious. You can just pull the brim down and pretend you’re the only one there.”

Harris says focusing on your form or breathing can help keep your mind occupied. Also, following up on an earlier point, having a specific workout plan, like treadmill intervals or a strength circuit, gives you specific tasks to accomplish.  

“Always remember, it’s not a competition. It’s about showing up for yourself and doing your best in that moment,” Harris says. “That’s it.”

Plug in your earphones, play your workout playlist and block out everyone else. They’re there for themselves, so you should do the same.  

7. Be realistic

Recognize your abilities and limits, because trying too much too fast can be discouraging.

“Start small. Get some momentum with an attainable action goal like moving 20 minutes a day for three days a week,” Harris says. “Then once you crush that, you can increase the minutes, intensity and frequency a little at a time. But start small and layer it on gradually so it becomes part of your lifestyle and not a diet or fitness kick mindset.”

You want to enjoy working out so that you keep doing it, and setting yourself up for failure when you’re starting out won’t help. 

8. Get real

Honestly, a massive misconception caused by anxiety and paranoia is that people care at all what you’re doing. Chances are, they don’t. People generally care about themselves and probs aren’t checking to see what speed you’re going on the treadmill or how much weight you’re lifting. Just keep reminding yourself of this when you go to the gym.

“Another thing I tell everyone, because I’m currently in training to be a cycle instructor, is that everyone’s goals and progress are different,” Jordan says. “There’s no comparison, and most people who go to the gym are there to workout, not stare at others and constantly judge.”

Mentally conquering the gym can be just as difficult as a tough physical workout, but overcoming mental roadblocks is a life skill that’s definitely worth taking the time to master.

“Remember that everyone is on their own journey. This is true in the gym as it is in life,” Harris says. “It’s not about comparing where you are to other people but about seeing what you can do – today, for yourself – to give it your best and know that’s enough.”

Believe that you can and you’ll go far!

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Abby Piper

Notre Dame

Abby is a senior studying English, French and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame but remains obsessed with her hometown St. Louis. She loves running, water skiing, writing, watching Christmas movies all year long and The O.C.'s Seth Cohen.
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