Being in good all-around shape requires a balance of weight-lifting, stretching and cardio. For most of us, that means working out in a gym once in a while. However, it’s entirely common to feel anxious about the gym, especially if you’ve never been a regular before. Here are six methods to help you with overcoming gym anxiety.
Overcoming Gym Anxiety in 6 Steps
1. Anxiety vs Lack of Motivation
Gym anxiety is often confused with a lack of motivation to work out. While the two problems frequently coincide, they’re actually opposite problems to have.
Psychologically, lack of motivation is a low-energy state. Subjectively, being unmotivated is the opposite of being excited. Unsurprisingly then, methods for dealing with a lack of motivation often involve raising your energy level – taking caffeine, listening to heavy metal, and so on.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a high-energy state. You’re more likely to be anxious if you have a lot of energy, particularly energy that you’re unable to burn off.
Many people try to fight gym anxiety the same way they fight a lack of motivation, and that’s a mistake. In many cases, the cure for anxiety will be the opposite of what you would do for a lack of motivation – you need to lower your energy level, rather than raise it.
2. View Anxiety as Yet Another Reason to Go to the Gym
A few years ago, a friend talked me into going rock climbing with him. He goes rock climbing every week. I, on the other hand, had done it maybe three times in my life. Mainly that’s because I’m deathly afraid of heights.
After a few rounds on the two easiest walls in the gym, my friend tried to talk me into climbing an intermediate-level wall with a slight overhang. After I admitted that I was afraid to attempt the climb, he said, “Well now you have to do it.” He was right. I attempted the climb – unsuccessfully, but I tried it.
The point is, I made the climb not in spite of my fear, but because of it. I wanted the self-respect that comes from overcoming my fears more than I wanted to climb a wall.
If you’re afraid to go to the gym, that means you have more to gain from going--not only will it get you into better physical shape, but it will help you overcome your fear. The next time you feel fear, reverse your response to it – lean into it and reap the benefits.
3. Avoid Stimulants
Stimulants such as caffeine are commonly used pre-workout to enhance exercise performance. Although they are believed to physically enhance strength and endurance, more recent research suggests that caffeine enhances exercise primarily by increasing motivation to exercise while reducing the perception of effort.
As we saw earlier, stimulants tend to increase both motivation and anxiety, sometimes leading to a situation where you want to do something, but feel anxious about it. So it is with caffeine--it increases anxiety, particularly when you consume the high doses common in pre-workout supplements.
Most people with anxiety disorders understand this and avoid or severely limit caffeine consumption in response. However, people who are anxious but trying to exercise more often frequently consume pre-workout caffeine in an attempt to enhance their motivation or physical energy level, and this is likely to backfire.
Instead, avoid stimulants, both in general and before workouts in particular.
4. At First, Make Just Exercising In the Gym Your Goal
Putting pressure on yourself to go about exercise “the right way” might be causing you to psych yourself out, especially if you tend to get anxious when you set an ambitious goal.
So don’t force yourself to follow a specific workout routine early on. For your first month in the gym, just go and exercise (any exercise) for a half-hour.
For your second month, set broad guidelines for what type of exercise to do: 15 minutes of weights, 15 minutes of cardio, and 5 minutes of stretching, for instance.
For your third month, start setting volume goals – like doing at least 10 sets of weight exercises per workout, at least eight different stretches, and jogging for 15 minutes.
In fact, you might even push this schedule back – and not start “working out” until month two. In that case, your goal for month one would be to simply…
5. Have Fun in the Gym
You don’t need to enjoy exercise – although if you do, that’s great. Instead, do other things you enjoy while you’re at the gym. Here’s the advice actor Terry Crews gave when someone on Reddit asked him for advice about gym motivation:
TREAT THE GYM LIKE A SPA.
Yes. It has to feel good. I tell people this a lot – go to the gym, and just sit there, and read a magazine, and then go home. And do this every day.
Go to the gym, don't even work out. Just GO. Because the habit of going to the gym is more important than the workout. Because it doesn't matter what you do. You can have fun - but as long as you're having fun, you continue to do it.
But what happens is you get a trainer, your whole body is sore, you can't feel your legs, and you're not coming back the next day - you might not come back for a year!
I worked my way up to 2 hours a day. I ENJOY my workouts. They are my peace, my joy - I get my whole head together! I value that time more than my shower! And it really gets me together. But it's a habit…
So lay out your clothes, and go to the gym, and relax.
But sooner or later, you WILL work out.
6. Exercise Hard Enough to Get Tired
People who are anxious about exercising tend to exercise half-heartedly worried some unspecified bad thing will happen if they go too hard. This makes the problem worse, as it leaves them with pent-up energy that only gets channeled into more anxiety.
Remember, anxiety is a high-arousal state. Instead of letting your anxiety scare you out of breaking a sweat, channel that nervous energy into your workout. Push yourself harder than feels comfortable. Once you tire yourself out, you won’t have the energy to be nervous.
Have a Small Meal or Shake at the Gym, Before Working Out
People typically eat after a workout in order to fuel muscle growth. That makes good physical sense, but psychologically, eating beforehand might be better for anxiety.
Eating a protein-rich meal increases dopamine production in the brain, while a carbohydrate-rich meal increases serotonin. Although dopamine would improve motivation, serotonin is more helpful in reducing anxiety, so make sure your pre-workout meal has at least 30 grams of carbs.
You want a fair amount of protein in this meal – just not at the expense of carbohydrates. A juice smoothie with protein powder is ideal if your gym has a smoothie bar.
Sipping this at the gym has the added benefit of helping you associate the gym with the pleasure you get from consuming food, which will condition you to like it more over time. By having this meal or smoothie just before your workout, you’ll condition yourself to feel calmer at the gym.
Gym anxiety is normal, and no reason to avoid the gym. You can overcome it, and when you do, you’ll feel amazing.