Walking into a gym for the first time can be an embarrassing experience. You might be self-conscious that you're too out of shape while everyone else seems fit, or that you're wearing the wrong clothes, or you might simply feel out of place. But it's important to get through the paranoia and start exercising.
This post originally appeared on Psychology Today.
Anyone who tries to start an exercise program knows how difficult it is to stick with it for more than a few weeks. You may feel selfish for taking time out for yourself, or you're too busy or tired to exercise. Some people find exercise boring and lose their motivation. But there's an overlooked reason people may avoid exercising, and that's embarrassment.
Embarrassment related to exercise is something I know too well. I remember in my grade school physical education classes how teams were selected. The teacher picked two of the best athletes to be the captains, and they each took turns picking who they wanted to be on their team. Invariably, I was the last to be picked. Then, no matter what the sport, I tried to be as far away from the action as possible; I didn't want to risk further humiliation by dropping the ball, or whatever the case may have been.
Anyone can feel a little nervous about exercising in public if they haven't done it in a while. You might have thoughts such as:
- I don't know what kind of clothes to wear.
- I don't like the way I look. I'm too fat to exercise in public.
- I'm so awkward. I'm afraid I'll trip, or not know how to use a machine.
- What if I break a machine?
- I don't know how to deal with the whole locker room scene.
- What if it's crowded and I have to stand around waiting to use the equipment? I'll feel so uncomfortable.
- I don't want to have to talk to anybody.
Despite my previous negative experiences with exercise, after two back surgeries, I knew I needed a strong exercise program to keep me as healthy as possible. My husband and I joined a gym that was associated with a hospital. We were some of the younger ones there and I never had too much trouble with embarrassment. When some people are using walkers to get from machine to machine, it helps put things in perspective.
However, not too long ago, my husband wanted to switch gyms. There was one closer to where he works, and he thought he'd be able to exercise at lunch. I changed with him, but I experienced quite a shock.
At the new gym, we were the "old" people. Young, physically fit bodies dressed in tight-fitting, trendy exercise clothes were doing things that seemed humanly impossible. To tell you the truth, I was mad at my husband for several weeks (ok, it was a month) for having us make the change. I hated the new place! I felt out of place and had many of the thoughts listed above.
With some concerted effort, though, I learned a few things. I hope these tips will help you shed some self-consciousness.
How to Deal with Feelings of Embarrassment
Shop Around. If it weren't for the fact that my husband was going to this particular gym, I probably wouldn't have switched in the first place. If you're starting from scratch, look around. In our town, there's a new place that is catering to people who don't want to feel intimidated by hunky people grunting as they bench press some ungodly amount of weight. Have a look at the different gyms that are available to you, and consider which one might cater to more casual members.
Give yourself time. Give yourself time to adjust. Any new situation can be stressful. Guys in tank tops and girls in tight leggings — well, not exactly my idea of a relaxed environment. While some people adapt quickly, it took me a long time. Don't give up too soon. Persistence is key.
Dress for success. Consider buying yourself one or two outfits for the gym that you feel good in. For me, it's basic exercise pants and a matching top from Target. Nothing fancy, but it feels good and fits well. Wearing clothes that are too big and baggy doesn't send the right message to the "inner you." You want to tell yourself: Hey, I have a right to be here, just like anyone else. You don't need to go overboard and buy a whole wardrobe, but find what you feel most comfortable with and stick with it.
Lose the paranoia. I know you've probably already told yourself this, but it's really true: most people aren't watching you or interested in what you're doing. They're off in their own little world listening to music or watching a TV while they exercise. After reading various gym forums I've found that when most people see a heavier person exercise they are thinking positive thoughts, like "Good for you!" or "I used to be there, too." Most people won't notice you at all, and those who do are quietly rooting for you!
Turn jealously into joy. At first, I was jealous of all these young, fit people and the seeming ease at which they could do things like jump from the ground up six feet to the top of a stack of mats and lift heavy loads. Gradually my jealousy transformed into admiration. These young bodies are beautiful, and how wonderful these people are taking care of themselves.
Focus on the task at hand. Switch your focus from those around you to how your body feels at it moves. This is especially important as you're starting an exercise program. You want to listen to what your body is telling you so you don't do too much and injure yourself. Once you actually start, your self-consciousness about what other people might be thinking of you is the last thing that matters, and the anxiety of getting started on a new endeavour will begin to fade.
Give yourself credit. Finally, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Developing a new habit is never easy, and if you've never had positive experiences with exercise, it can be even harder to get yourself moving. And remember, if you slip up and skip a few days (or a week), don't forget, you can always begin again.
It can be nerve-wracking to take the plunge, but you'll thank yourself later.
Are You Too Embarrassed to Exercise? [Psychology Today]
Dr Barbara Markway, PhD, is a psychologist with over 20 years of experience and the author of four books — three on social anxiety/shyness and one on marriage. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Prevention, Essence, American Health, Real Simple and Web MD. Dr Markway's recent interests include self-compassion and she writes about her own experiences at The Self-Compassion Project.