New to working out? Here’s how to overcome exercise anxiety

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5 tips to help overcome anxiety at the gym
WATCH: 5 tips to dealing with gym anxiety – Jun 5, 2019

While working out is a stress reliever, getting to the gym can cause some people a lot of anxiety.

The fear around working out often stems from not knowing how to use certain exercise equipment. Others feel judged or intimidated by gyms — especially if a space is focused on weight loss.

“The gym is known as a place people go to ‘fix’ or ‘change’ their bodies,” said Jenna Doak, a certified personal trainer and founder of Body Positive Fitness.

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“Most gyms do not help this situation by [conducting] an ‘assessment’ on members as they join, which includes measurements of various parts of the body, weighing the client and ‘calculating their body fat’ — which is [often] an inaccurate read.”
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When it comes to boutique fitness studios or workout classes, Doak says many can be “cliquey” and promote certain body ideals. This can foster an “exclusive” members-only attitude that makes outsiders feel intimidated.

“I see [from social media] that many gyms and studios only have — or are only featuring — clients who look very fit, beautiful, well-dressed and athletic,” Doak explained.

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“As a person who is new to exercise or doesn’t have what the fitness industry considers an ‘ideal body,’ this can create a lot of hesitation to join and work out in this space.”

Why working out can cause anxiety

On top of weight-loss focused gyms, Doak says that people also get anxious if they’ve never been to the gym before, or it’s been a while since they’ve worked out.

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It can be incredibly hard to know how to start a fitness routine if you don’t already have one.

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Sarah Taylor, a certified personal trainer and founder of Fitness by Sarah Taylor, says that most people just head for the treadmill or elliptical machines because that’s all they’re comfortable doing.

Taylor, who is also a plus-size model and body-positive advocate, says people who are new to exercise rarely understand how to target different muscle groups, which can add to their gym anxiety.

“When it comes to strength training, they don’t know how to do proper form,” she said. “They don’t even know how to build an exercise program, so they just kind of stick to a cardio machine — and that can be really boring.”

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Find someone to help you

To help combat a lack of knowledge, Taylor says it’s important to find a reliable source to learn from.

If you’re able to afford it, Taylor says working with a personal trainer can be a great way to learn the basics. She says if an ongoing trainer is out of your budget, one or two sessions can still be helpful.

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“I’ll go with [people] to their gym and show them how to use their equipment, and we’ll record the session so that they have an idea of how to actually do [the exercises] when I’m not with them,” Taylor said.

Doak agrees, and says that even one to five sessions with a personal trainer can “teach you a lot of what you can use forever.”

What’s important, both experts said, is to work with someone who understands your goals and is going to make you feel good about exercise — not bad.

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Join a community

Outside of a trainer, Doak says joining a class or fitness studio that has a welcoming and body-positive mentality is key.

Research shows working out with others can increase motivation and improve performance. Another study found that group fitness can decrease stress and promote well-being.

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If you’re new to a certain workout or type of exercise, joining a beginner’s class or six-week training program is a good way to start. Taylor says that she always offers modifications to her clients, which is important since everybody moves differently.

Small group training classes are also a good way to learn strength training fundamentals, as coaches should teach form, and walk clients through proper technique.

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“If somebody were to come [to classes] for six months, for example, they would get a really good understanding of how to do everything and they could continue on their own,” Taylor adds.

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Doak adds that a good fitness community can also change your relationship with exercise.

“I want to create spaces where all people can just experience joy in movement, lifting, stretching and sweating, and do it all with like-minded individuals in a body-positive, diet-free space,” Doak said.

“I always want my clients to come to a class or training [session] only because they want to; I never want a client to feel like they have to be there.”

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Taylor says that her clients not only encourage one another, but they’ve also developed friendships outside of working out.

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“The great thing about group fitness is that there’s motivation in the community,” she said. “It’s not just about going to the gym by yourself.”

Focus on how you feel — not the scale

People’s relationships with exercise can become complicated when weight loss is the sole focus.

Doak says it’s important that people see fitness as part of a healthy lifestyle, and understand working out is about making you feel good in your own skin.

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“Taking away… measuring, weighing — the things the fitness industry has revolved around for so long to make money — ensures that the only reason people are coming to the gym is because they want to, and this is the end goal,” Doak said.

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Plus, when you actually learn proper exercises and enjoy working out, you become more motivated, Taylor says.

“It’s really learning to feel good and focusing on that,” Taylor said.

“It’s about having a holistic approach to fitness because, in most gyms, it’s about an aesthetic and looking a certain way — [but] our weight doesn’t dictate our value or our worth.”

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