Is there any place scarier than a new gym? We think not.

Is there any place scarier than a new gym? We think not.

By Josie Rubio

People lurching forward with dead-eyed stares. Sinister-looking instruments of torture sit among clanking noises and grunts. Sometimes inhuman sounds ring in your ears. And then there's the smell... There’s no question about it: The gym can be a scary place.

If you’re afraid of the gym (or fitness studio), you’re not alone in experiencing gym intimidation (sometimes creatively called  “gymtimidation”). In fact, many people don’t go to the gym because they feel out of place, according to a 2011 Mintel report.

But don’t get discouraged—even those regulars you see at the gym were once new (it's true; we swear). We talked to trainers who get their advice on how to get over your fitness fears—and they even shared some of their own. “I think most people have limitations or hesitations, but I think those people could be taught to see these as really opportunities to learn and develop,” says Lisa Kinder, a Los Angeles-based trainer and creator of the “10-Minute Solution: High Intensity Interval Training” workout. “That's what gives us goals -- something to work towards.”

First order of business, though, is kicking those fitness fears to the curb. Here's how to get started:

FEAR: "I’m too out-of-shape."

It seems counterintuitive, but people are often afraid that they are not fit enough for the gym, says Jess Horton, an ACE-certified personal trainer at Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. She makes this analogy: “Think about it this way: When you're sick, do you try to heal yourself and get healthy on your own before going to the doctor?”

Kinder says that people often worry that they won’t be able to keep up in classes or at the gym.  “When my clients are worried that their pace or physical body isn't up to par, I teach my clients that they are not in competition with anyone, not even themselves,” she says. “It's about progress, not perfection, and that being the case, they should do the best they can to enjoy their process.” In fact, it’s a strategy Kinder uses herself as she recovers from reconstructive knee surgery. “I've learned to journal and document my progression even if it's complete baby steps.” (We suggest an workout journal!)

When working out, it’s best to focus on yourself and to not fall into the “compare and despair” trap. Allison Grupski, Ph.D., a psychiatrist who helps people at the Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery & Bariatric Care in Melrose Park, Illinois, to establish healthy eating and exercise routines says, “Your exercise goals should be centered around physical health and well-being rather than a specific appearance type. Comparing your appearance to others might seem initially motivating, however, it can actually be counterproductive.”


FEAR: "Everyone will laugh at me."

Falling off the treadmill. Walking into the wrong locker room. Getting stuck on your cycling bike in those clip-on shoes. Rolling into a wall after losing control of one of those big exercise balls. (These are all real fears — and sometimes, yes, they actually happen.)

One of the main goals people new to the boot camp classes at Los Angeles-based Sweat City Fitness have is “avoiding doing anything that makes them look stupid,” says studio president Chris Chinn. Just relax, he says. “I've seen plenty of people trip, stumble, cramp up,” Chinn says. “It's not a big deal. No one will laugh at you, unless you're already laughing at yourself.”

Grupski encourages her patients to consider where the criticism is really coming from. “Some of the judgment you perceive might not actually be coming from others, but rather is a thought you have, to explain to your brain why you feel uncomfortable or self-conscious,” she says.

The bottom line? “Don't psych yourself out,” Chinn says. “There's nothing you can do that most people haven't already seen someone else do before.”


FEAR:  "The trainer is going to be mean and/or judge-y."

“Another common fear is that trainer or instructor will judge me, push me too hard, or not be realistic in their approach to my personal fitness,” Horton says. She recommends looking for trainers with ACE (American Council on Exercise); ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine); or NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) credentials. These trainers are specifically trained to work with people at all fitness levels and to build rapport with clients.

In group fitness classes, it’s important to find an instructor who is a good fit for you -- and that may take some trial and error. “The great thing about group fitness classes is that a good instructor knows all your fears and has seen it all before,” says Chinn. “He or she should be friendly and make you feel comfortable by introducing you to the rest of the class… And a good instructor will know how to design your workout so that everyone, no matter their level, gets the right workout.”

Some people are worried, too, about an overzealous trainer offering unsolicited advice at the gym, according to Grupski. If you’re intent on doing your own thing at the gym and someone seems a little too pushy, then he or she probably isn’t right for you, even if you're looking for a trainer. “If gym staff are encouraging you to work harder, let them know your current pace is perfect for you today considering your activity level this week and your fitness goals,” she says. “Thank them for their time and let them know you will be happy to review any written materials about their services on your way out of the gym.”


FEAR: "I have no idea what I'm doing!"

“People that walk into a new environment often have the ‘deer in the headlights’ look of not knowing what to do, and ultimately just try to get by without doing anything that will draw attention to them or make them look foolish,” says Chinn. Interestingly, a Cosmopolitan Body survey conducted by the U.K. edition of Cosmo magazine found that while women were twice as likely to feel embarrassed when exercising, men’s main fear was looking as if they didn’t know what they were doing.

Some of the most common fears stem from inadequate knowledge of how to do an exercise, what equipment to use, and what to do next, says Chinn. He recommends going in with a game plan—simply taking a few minutes before your workout to figure out what you want to accomplish. For example, if you want to work out your arms and back and get in some cardio, pick a few familiar exercises and commit to 15 minutes on the stationary bike. “If you don't know any exercises or are unsure how to do them, just take a minute to look it up on YouTube,” he says. (In fact, take a look at some of our videos and tutorials of simple moves.) “Having a simple plan like this will keep you from getting distracted by all the other shenanigans going on around you," he adds.

Grupski also recommends having a trainer introduce you to the weight machines, going to the gym during off-peak hours (when things are quieter, which can feel much less intimidating), exercising with a friend, maybe one who knows his or her way around the gym, and staying towards the back of a fitness class until you have a better sense of the routine.


FEAR: "I can’t jump/do a headstand/lift weights…"

We all have our specific fears—even trainers. “I refuse to do a headstand,” says Lisa Kinder. When Chinn first started lifting weights, he says, “I would usually go and hide in the empty areas of the gym so no one would see how weak I was. But after a few workouts I realized that a) no one cares how good or strong you are, and b) I was actually getting stronger and had no reason to hide.”

When returning to fitness, Kinder says people are often reluctant to try stepping or jumping up or down from a step or platform. “It's not a daily or common physical movement,” she says, adding that a lot of people haven’t moved like that since playground jump rope or gym class. “I usually break down the moves and tap into the mental and push them through this opportunity,” she says. Once her clients overcome those workout fears, it benefits other areas of their lives, says Kinder. “It ends up being a confidence-booster and it ends up applying to other setbacks they may have put on themselves,” she says.

Chinn adds that it's always a challenge getting used to a new routine. “Just like any new experience, it's a little scary at first but it usually ends up being fun and worthwhile,” he says. “And knowing that working out is 100% effective and good for your health, it's an experience worth overcoming your fears for.”

What are your biggest workout fears?


Photo by Blanche