I remember moving from a small town in Ohio to the big city of Denver after grad school in 2013. I made it a point to sign up at the gym nearest to my new apartment the night I arrived in Denver.
I was determined that this life transition would not not throw me off my fitness game.
The next evening, I walked into my new gym and set about my workout. But there was this feeling…
…I didn’t know anyone.
…This gym was four times the size of the one in my old small town.
…I no longer knew which machines and free weights were where.
…The array of equipment, dumbbells, barbells now available to me in this much bigger gym was dizzying.
…The people in this gym were (at the time) much more in shape then I was.
I knew this was all part of the transition so I didn’t let those feelings derail me. I was committed to adjusting to this new gym. but I confess, I felt very out of place.
I share this story to tell you that feeling out of place in the gym, either because its a new gym for you, or because you are joining a gym for the first time, is absolutely normal.
The question is how can you navigate these feelings and make this new environment feel like home?
Let me offer 3 tips for managing, and overcoming fear of, the gym.
1. YOU DO YOU & TAKE YOUR TIME TO ADJUST
It’s your gym as much as any member. There is no expectations from the staff or other members that you would dress a certain way, do certain workouts, or be in a certain level of physical fitness.
Contrary to what your mind may be telling you, no one is watching you.
Take the time to explore the gym and figure out where stuff is. If you need to just go to the gym and walk around or just use the amenities (like a pool sauna or steam room) for a few days before you “hit the weights” go for it.
Explore and do whatever makes you most comfortable in the gym to start. Definitely set yourself a “start the weights date” so that this exploratory/adjustment phase has a firm end date.
2. UNDERSTAND GYM CULTURE
Contrary to what media would have you believe, most gyms are populated by ordinary people looking to make a change in their health, fitness, and appearance- just like you.
People that are humble , unassuming, helpful, welcoming, and started somewhere- just like you.
The population of shallow people who go to the gym to be seen, show off, and intimidate others is extraordinarily small.
Everybody in the gym culture instinctively knows what its like to be a “gym newbie” because we all were that person at some point. People that are in the gym regularly are protective of the “newbie” and eager to help because we all know that those first few gym experiences can make or break your commitment to a fitness regimen.
If anybody is going to be “a target” of being judged , made fun of, laughed at, or whatever other negative reaction you are imagining, in a gym; it’s going to be someone like me.
Someone who has a visible limp, skinny legs, and poor balance due to cerebral palsy.
In the now 10+ years I have been lifting. I have visited, or been a part of, dozens of gyms. I can count on one hand the number of time I have been made to feel unwelcome in a gym.
(On every occasion that did happen, one or more of the patrons rose to my defense spontaneously and put the “gym bully” in his place!)
That is all to say that real gym culture is warm, encouraging, and inviting. The meatheads and mean girls are few and far between. If you give the gym staff and patrons a chance, you will discover it’s a group of people just like you -that look out for their own.
3. UNDERSTAND WHY YOU- AND OTHERS- ARE IN THE GYM IN THE FIRST PLACE
This is the most powerful tip I can give you to overcoming fear of the gym.
Fear of the gym comes from judging other gym patrons motives toward you. Perhaps a belief that they are watching, judging, or making fun of you.
Here is actually why other patrons are in the gym. Behind “making gains”, instagram mirror selfies, water bottles, headphones, and stylish gym clothes everyone is there to better themselves, or to be more accurate, to fix something about themselves that they don’t like.
The gym is full of people who are far from perfect.
I have met recovering addicts of every type in the gym.
I have met people who are serious about the gym because it’s the only thing keeping their mental health from completely collapsing (This was me).
I have met people who are in the gym after a breakup or divorce.
I have met people in the gym who are in danger of death due to poor health.
I have met ex-cons who have rebuilt there life through the gym.
I have met people in the gym who are there to do the impossible to prove doctors, haters, and naysayers wrong and to chase a dream of doing an athletic competition as a personal goal (This was me).
I have met people in the gym who are there because they are sick of hating how they look and feel.
I have met people in the gym who are in the gym because it is their second chance at life. (This was me).
I have met people in the gym who are there because their wedding is coming and they want to look good naked on their wedding night….
The list of reasons could go on forever.
My point is this, everyone is in the gym precisely because they are imperfect (or broken) in some way. A truly perfect person won’t ever be found in a gym, because the gym is all about bettering one’s self. There is no “better” for perfect people.
Your fellow gym patrons are there for themselves and their healing, journey and goals. I guarantee you they are paying hardly any (most likely no) attention to you whatsoever.
If you are brutally honest your going to the gym (or wanting to) because your not happy about yourself, or your life, in some way. You are looking for that best version of yourself and your life.
Guess what? So is everyone else in any gym!
What you see as a group of perfect people ready to judge you, may very well be some of the people who understand- and accept you- the most.
Some of them may even become friends of yours.
Go to the gym for YOU. For YOUR goals. For YOUR reasons. For YOUR journey. If you want talk to other patrons and be social, do it. If you want to throw your hood up and put on music and fall into your own world, do it. If your afraid of free weights and want to start by using machines, do it….
The gym isn’t junior high for adults.
The gossip, judgement, bullying, jocks, mean girls etc are not what awaits you there.
It’s just a group of ordinary imperfect people bettering themselves. They are there for their reasons- which have nothing to do with you. You would be a perfect, imperfect, fit for this such a group.
Feel free to reach out to me with and questions or comments . Hope this article helps you feel at home in the gym!
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear don’t sit at home thinking about it. Go out and get busy”