As many female and non-cis-male (including some cis-male) readers will know, the gym is a terrifying environment, whether you go regularly or have never been before. It is still heavily male-dominated, but this is changing. This blog aims to explain why the gym is such a scary place and how to overcome that fear if you want to go. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress and improve physical and mental well-being, this article is not about losing weight, it’s about mental health and eliminating spaces where women feel they are excluded due to their gender. Despite being a training triathlete and using the gym 4-5 times a week I still get really scared and intimidated, which is totally normal. On some days I can beat this and feel like I could stand my ground against the biggest ‘gym lad’ there, yet on others, I want to cower in a corner as far away as possible from the men that make loud noises lifting weights about ten times heavier than I can. It took me a while but now the former days are the majority of my gym days and I love it the gym makes me feel calm and strong and I enjoy watching my own progress.
Various studies reveal that 32 to 65% of women identify intimidation as a barrier to joining a gym. Other factors include feeling out of place, being put off by thinking you have to wear tight and revealing gym clothes, and the decision of wearing makeup only to sweat it off, or not wear any at all. Around 50% of women say they feel self-conscious about their stomachs, and over ¼ claim they are too unfit to even consider signing up. The fear of not knowing where and how to start as well as how to use machines is a significant barrier making about one in three women feel uncomfortable. So, these feelings are not uncommon and if you experience any of them, you are not alone.
If you want to start using a gym this is how to beat these barriers, when you first go staff are available to show you around and show you how to use the equipment, many gyms even offer you a basic training plan based on your goals. This is a great way to get comfortable and identify the equipment that you can and want to use without feeling overwhelmed and unsure of what to do or where to start. The trainers are eager to help and will show you how to use equipment and proper form. After all, that’s their job and often fitness is their passion, and they want to share it with you. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this for any reason including feeling self-conscious that it’s your first time or not wanting to walk around the gym with a staff member that is completely OK too. To get comfortable here I would suggest your first time in the gym finding somewhere with a vantage point or somewhere quiet. For example, many gyms have a mixture of cardio machines and weights. You can often see the weights from the cardio machines, so pick a machine and do some very light cardio. For example, just a walk on a treadmill for 5-10 minutes, and use this time to scout out the layout of the rest of the gym and make you feel more comfortable with where everything is. If there aren’t available cardio machines or you don’t feel comfortable using them, choose a quiet space on a mat for some stretching, even for your first few times in the gym, just doing some basic stretching (there are loads of videos you can follow on YouTube) will help you become more familiar with the environment. This is a workout in and of itself, and you can slowly build up from here. Some gym websites even provide a virtual tour of the layout. For the first few times try to go out of peak hours if your job allows it. This information is often available on the gym’s website, or you can call to ask.
I would also recommend getting some good (preferably noise-cancelling) headphones if you can and listening to music while you’re at the gym. This helps you control how you feel and creates your own section of the gym in your head so you don’t feel overwhelmed. If you do start to feel overwhelmed just take a deep breath and remind yourself that everyone in the gym has the same right to be there, has their own goals, and their own journey, including you. If you do not want to ask a gym trainer for a plan for whatever reason, then there are loads of free tools online to help you build your own plan and plenty of YouTube videos demonstrating how to do the exercises. These are designed to help beginners so don’t let gym jargon such as “training plan” or “leg day” scare you off. These programs can be designed specifically for you. Finding a training plan and even going through the exercises at home can really help to make you feel more comfortable in the gym. Also, focussing on a plan and what you have left of it gives you less time to worry about everything that was holding you back. A major concern for many gym goers let alone new ones is the fear that everyone is looking at them and judging them but trust me everyone is either thinking the same thing, or so focussed on themselves that they are not looking or judging. Going with a friend who goes to the gym, knows the gym you’re going to or has never gone to the gym really helps to make you feel more comfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends, going to the gym for your mental and physical health means any good friend would be really keen to help you in any way they can. If you don’t want to go to the gym but still want to improve your fitness or get moving exercise classes are great and often involve a much more inviting environment, the timings make it easy to fit into your day and they are often designed to be fun with music and energetic friendly staff who lead them.
Finally, take time to acknowledge your achievements not only each time you step up your workouts but each time you step into the gym. Recognizing you are taking steps entirely for yourself will do wonders for your confidence. Gyms are scary, but you are not alone. Exercise is incredible at improving your physical and mental health which only you can look after. Take steps for yourself and your progress will be amazing.
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Sources https://www.womenshealthmag.com/uk/health/mental-health/a41766551/women-fear-gym-lycra/ https://metro.co.uk/2019/09/09/one-in-four-women-feel-too-intimidated-to-go-to-the-gym-study-finds-10710751/ https://www.arenaathletic.com/Blog/a-shocking-number-of-women-avoid-the-gym-for-fear-of-being-judged/ https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness/gym-anxiety https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/women-sport-exercise-embarrassment-gym-anxiety-a9098021.html https://www.mealprep.com.au/p/conquering-gym-anxiety/
Cover Image Courtesy of @growing_designer on Instagram
Madeline Trudgian (She/Her)
Politics and international relations student at the University of Nottingham, intersectional feminist and blog writer for Our Streets Now. Passionate about women's education globally as a powerful tool to dismantle the patriarchy.