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Gym Anxiety: Returning to exercise post-pandemic


If you have ever felt nervous going to the gym, you are not alone. This article explains the origins of gym anxiety and the strategies you can use to work out with confidence.  

ANCIENT GREEKS 

Think for a moment, back to the original gym – the ancient Greek gymnasium. This was a male-only club where chiseled athletes trained – and socialized – in the nude. In appreciation of the male form, gym-goers would oil up, sweat out, and scrape it all off with a strigil. 

For anyone lacking the body confidence of a demigod, the scene is mildly intimidating – and worse perhaps, reminiscent of the modern-day gym. To be fair much has changed since the days of Zeus and Heracles. Opportunities for exercise are ever-expanding, from female-friendly gyms to online personal trainers.  

But gym anxiety remains. And for too many, it is the barrier to health and fitness.  

WHAT IS GYM ANXIETY?

Gym anxiety is the feeling of worry or nervousness experienced when going to the gym.

The gym environment makes us anxious for a variety of reasons. Most of us have felt nervous when performing in front of others but working out in the gym accentuates this feeling because our bodies and our abilities are on full display.

As a result of increasing gym membership and “perfect body” pressure, gym anxiety is on the rise.(1),(2) According to some estimates, 50% of us are intimidated by the thought of exercising in the gym.(3) In the quest for physical fitness, our mental health has never been more important.

RETURNING TO EXERCISE 

The pandemic has upended exercise routines and led to a more sedentary, indoor lifestyle.(4),(5),(6) As we cautiously peep out from hibernation, the world is gradually returning to conventional gyms and exercise spaces. But the long-anticipated reopening is tempered by the lingering fear of infection and fresh sensitivity to our physical appearance. To put it bluntly, we’d rather stay in bed.

The stark reality is that the pandemic has changed us more than we want to admit. Not only are we less physically active, but the reduction in physical activity is associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.(7),(8) 

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A recent study demonstrated significant increases in anxiety and stress following covid gym closures. Interestingly, the athletes involved did not compensate for lost gym time with other forms of exercise, suggesting that the routine of gym workouts was difficult to replace.(9) 

Most advice on returning to exercise after a period of inactivity is focused on physical preparation. However, the challenge of returning to exercise post-pandemic is not simply a matter of shaking off the rust and stretching out. The real hurdle is building confidence to re-enter the world no matter what shape you’re in.  

Gym anxiety is characterized by feelings of inadequacy and intimidation, hence the darkly humorous term “gymtimidation”. The anxiety has less to do with actual fitness and more to do with mental health.  

7 REASONS FOR GYMTIMIDATION  

Although many people experience gym anxiety, the cause may differ from person to person. For some, the changing rooms are most uncomfortable. For others, the fear of not knowing how to use the equipment causes anxiety. Which of these common causes do you relate to? 

  1. Worrying about what other gym users think of you 
  2. Not knowing how to use the gym or equipment properly  
  3. Getting changed in front of others  
  4. Sweating or getting red in the face 
  5. Feeling marginalized or intimidated by other gym users 
  6. Fear of infection or contaminated surfaces.  
  7. Feeling embarrassed in gym wear 

HOW TO OVERCOME GYM ANXIETY

Whatever the cause, there are strategies to conquer gym anxiety. Here are our tips for overcoming gymtimidation

Overcoming gym anxiety

REMOVE UNCERTAINTY

Uncertainty is a common cause of anxiety because it prevents us from preparing for the future. Gym anxiety can be caused by uncertainty about what to do or wear, or whether or not we will feel welcome. Research the gym website, call ahead, or talk with gym members before your first visit to reduce the element of uncertainty. 

FIND YOUR PLACE 

Every gym feels different. Try to find one that suits you. Many gyms have specific hours or classes catering to different groups. This is especially important for women, who are likely to experience higher levels of gym anxiety.(10),(11)

GET INTRODUCED 

Most gyms offer an introduction. This is a great way to learn how the gym is laid out and how to use the equipment. Consider a personal trainer to build confidence and avoid the risk of embarrassment or injury through improper technique.   

EXERCISE WITH OTHERS 

Finding a place where you feel accepted and people with whom you share common ground can help overcome the anxiety of gym workouts. Exercising with friends or in a group has been shown to improve mental health and quality of life.(12),(13) 

USE PSYCHOLOGY 

It’s tempting to think that gym regulars are immune to psychological difficulties, but this is not the case.(14),(15) A study of gym instructors identified a worrying prevalence of exercise addiction, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders.(16) Despite being in shape and exercising with confidence, experienced gym users still suffer from thoughts of being overweight or unfit.

Getting in shape is not enough to conquer gym anxiety. Explore coping strategies such as positive self-talk and mindfulness.(17) Slow breathing techniques are also effective in reducing anxiety as they influence heart rate and the central nervous system.(18) 

SEEK HELP 

Seek professional help if you feel your anxiety is out of control. Health professionals can help us overcome gym anxiety using the “Social Physique Anxiety Scale”.(19) This tool evaluates our response to statements such as “There are times when I am bothered by thoughts that other people are evaluating my weight or muscular development negatively” to inform effective coping strategies.  

EXPLORE ALTERNATIVES 

One of the positive effects of adapting to the pandemic is the willingness to explore new technologies. Where gym closures and social distancing have created barriers, online workouts and fitness apps have opened new doors.  

In the search for an exercise routine that is life-proof, fitness apps are revolutionary. The adidas Training app allows you to work out on your own terms, with guided workouts and training plans to help you achieve your fitness goal. 

EXERCISE IS MEDICINE 

The clincher is that exercise itself is a proven antidote to anxiety.(20),(21),(22) So be encouraged. The return to exercise is a win-win, for mental health and physical fitness.

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