Fight Your Fear of the Gym

posted by Elizabeth Shaw
filed under fitness postings
You've picked the club, signed the contract, and paid the membership fees. So why does the thought of actually working out at the gym have you searching for excuses? "As soon as new gymgoers walk in, they tend to start making comparisons," says Terry Orlick, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and professor of human kinetics at the University of Ottawa in Ontario. "They're not as big or as slender. They're not as familiar with the equipment. There's a big fear of failure." We've identified four of the most common health club hang-ups and the best ways to let them go.

Problem: I have no idea how anything works.

"A typical exercise center is a maze of equipment, machinery, and electronic gadgetry," says Steven Edwards, Ph.D., professor of applied health and educational psychology at Oklahoma State University. "It's easy to feel like you need to be an engineer to know how to get them to work."

Solution: Get help. "Don't just hop on the machinery and hope everything falls into place," says Edwards, who recommends actually taking advantage of the initiation tour. All gyms have staff who can teach you how to use all of the equipment. And if a free personal training session is included with your membership, take advantage of it right away.

Problem: Me, wear spandex?

A bad body image can squelch even the most motivated attempts to make fitness a part of your life. "The thought of having to compare yourself to others who are already in good condition isn't very pleasant," says Edwards.

Solution: Follow this four-step approach to feeling confident...

Go to the gym during off-hours. For the most part, gyms get jam-packed before and after work. If you have the time, go during your lunch hour or in the middle of the afternoon. The fewer people there are, the fewer opportunities you'll have to make negative comparisons.

Find safety in numbers. Working out with a supportive friend can diffuse the pressure of displaying your body, says Edwards.

Stay focused. "Anxiety is triggered by negative thinking," says Orlick. If you're concentrating on the exercise, you can't be focused on what the gymgoer next to you looks like.

Just do it. "The more you go, the better you'll feel about your body and yourself," says Orlick. Everything you do to better yourself is another goal achieved, and Orlick says that alone will make you feel more self-confident and less self-conscious.

Problem: Why am I even here?

If you don't know why you want to exercise in the first place, navigating the equipment and tuning out the hard bodies will really seem like an insurmountable task. "Many people say 'I need to exercise' without really knowing why they want to do it," says Edwards.

Solution: Get a game plan. First, examine what you hope to accomplish in the long run. Do you want to get stronger? Lower your cholesterol? Drop 10 pounds? Increase your endurance? "When you have a clear purpose, the other distractions tend to fall away," says Orlick. Second, learn how to structure your workout in order to reach that goal. Again, this is where a staff trainer can be enormously helpful. And be sure to make short-term goals along the way. Even if you just want to do five more push-ups than last time, having something to shoot for each day or every week will make going to the gym more pleasurable. Keeping a training log will also help you see your progress and thus give you greater motivation to keep going.

Problem: I feel like everybody's watching me.

"The gym is a performance environment," says Edwards. "If you're just lifting the bar all by itself and everyone else has it loaded with heavy weights, there's the potential for embarrassment."

Solution: Focus Inward...

Remember why you're there. "It doesn't matter what others are doing. When you see those beefy, bulky guys, remind yourself that their goals are probably a lot different from your own," says Orlick. "You're there for your own reasons, so try to stay focused on those."

Picture it. Before you head off to the gym, says Orlick, "Visualize yourself walking in feeling relaxed and comfortable, and see yourself doing the exercises." If you've already gone through the motions in your head, explains Orlick, you'll feel like you've had a little practice. Consequently, you'll be more at ease and more likely to accomplish your goals.

Keep going. "Once you work through the initial anxiousness," says Edwards, "you'll discover that there are lots of other people just like you, and you'll get over your fears in no time." Don't let fear get the best of you, because the overall benefits of exercise are definitely worth fighting a case of cold feet.

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