How to Overcome Gym Intimidation for Lasting Fitness Success

You want to go to the gym, but it feels intimidating—here’s what to do.

In the fall of 2016, my head was all over the place. I had finished my Master’s program in exercise science the semester before and was going right back to the same job I had. Don’t get me wrong—it was a great job, but I had tapped out on growth there. On top of that, I had just gotten dumped. That’s right—me, dumped! (What the heck?)

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I felt directionless. I knew that if I stayed in my current situation, I’d be stagnant and I would regret it. But there was a comfort in staying where I was as well. In my heart, I knew I wanted to change. I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. and continue to grow. But I was scared. I admit that. That would mean leaving my job and where I live to go somewhere where I didn’t know a single person.

At that time, I wasn’t OK with sitting still. I was probably exercising excessively to cope. I would drive around listening to audiobooks and stopping at random coffee shops to do work.

Yet one of these audiobooks introduced me to the concept of experiential acceptance. It was like a light clicked and I could think clearly. Experiential acceptance boils down to one question: Are you OK with feeling discomfort if it gets you something you truly want?

I knew my emotions were holding me back but I never thought about just being OK with them—just sitting with them and letting them be. At that moment, I knew that this was the best thing I could do. So I took a leap and applied to several Ph.D. programs. After three rejections from psychology departments (which was a blessing), I applied to exercise science departments with a psychology focus and got into all of them.

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I moved to Boston in the summer of 2017 and I couldn’t have made a better decision. Don’t get me wrong—it was still scary in the beginning. But asking the question, “Am I OK with feeling discomfort if I get something I truly want?” sent me down the right path.

What This Has to Do with Exercise

Exercising in your home is a great place to start and it might end up being where you do all of your exercise. This is completely fine.

But I’ve spoken with many people who want to go to the gym. They like having access to more equipment and they like that the time at the gym is truly their time—meaning no distractions from kids or work. They also might be able to take advantage of the community-based features of the gym. I’ve personally met some good friends just because I exercise at my apartment gym.

Yet there is an intimidation factor to the gym that a lot of people express to me. They worry about being judged or they worry that they are not doing things correctly. And it’s that worry that holds people back from going to the gym.

Rather than trying to shut this down or fight through it, I ask members a series of questions: Why are exercise and fitness valuable to you? What outcome will you get if you stay consistent and committed to exercise?

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Many people express to me that exercise is a way to take control of their physical and mental health. It helps them feel good and they know that if they are consistent they will have a longer and healthier life.

Then, I ask them about the anxiety they have about going to the gym. Specifically, I ask them if they think they would still have that feeling if they consistently went to the gym for a few months. They always tell me that it probably won’t be there if they go to the gym consistently. So we have identified that this feeling is temporary.

Then I ask them one last question: Are you OK with feeling like this temporarily if it means that you get something you truly care about? They think for a second and tell me yes.

So I’d love to hear from you (you can actually email me!). Tell me about any worries you have about going to the gym and tell me why it’s also valuable to you to exercise. Then think about it: Are you OK with these feelings if it means you get something you truly value?

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