How to Get Over Back-to-Gym Anxiety
Working out at home was cool for a while, but if you’re itching to get back to the club—and a little nervous about it—these tips will help.
September means it’s time for back-to-school but this year, for a lot of people it’s also time to get back to the gym. Hitting the weight room or cardio machines for the first session in months can be intimidating on many levels. “The thought of working out with a lot of other people in a shared space might bring up a lot of emotions right now,” says Jonathan Rosen, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in New York City who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. Learn how to put your jitters and COVID isolation anxieties aside with these tips.
Focus on the Payoff
According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress In America” report, 40 percent of people say they’ve gained weight since the beginning of the pandemic and 46 percent of people say their mental health has worsened. Exercise is the perfect antidote to both those issues, but fear of COVID spread in indoor spaces can make you wary of the gym. In reality though, there are a host of tools at your disposal to make that unlikely: getting vaccinated, masking, social distancing, washing your hands and wiping down equipment will make a difference. The risk will never be zero, says Rosen, but you can take steps to minimize it. “For those who are motivated but uncomfortable, focus on why you value going the gym,” he says. “Think about what it provides for you and what good can come from going. It is natural to focus on the possible negative outcomes, but it is important to look at the whole picture.”
Be Kind to Yourself
Remind yourself that you are training at the gym to feel better about yourself and to improve your well-being. “Whether you’re totally new or haven’t touched a workout tool since before March 2020, know that you won’t have your strongest workout—physically or mentally—every single day,” says certified personal trainer Hannah Davis, founder of Body by Hannah in Cleveland, TN. “There are ebbs and flows to your strength and speed and your confidence and self-esteem.” Most people have had a tough year, says Davis, so be kind to yourself and relish the small accomplishments, like the fact that you made it to the gym twice this week, or that you progressed from 5- to 10-pound dumbbells.
“If you really fell off your fitness routine during the pandemic it may be discouraging to see how much strength and conditioning you’ve lost,” Davis says. Start building back slowly in terms of frequency of workouts, amount of time spent in each workout and the amount of weight you select. “You should always be thoughtful about any new workout, whether you are brand new or a seasoned athlete, because your body will have an adjustment period,” she says.
Making sure you are properly warmed up is key to avoiding injury as you ease back into your fitness routine. Light stretches may seem like something you can rush through, but any athlete or fitness pro will tell you that warming up is critical to preparing your body for what you ask of it during a workout.
You Do You
A big part of gym intimidation comes from feeling like you don't belong or worrying about other people who seem fitter than you. Know this: “Everyone is on his own journey. If you find your eyes wandering, refocus on why you are at the gym and what your goals are for the day,” Rosen says. “Other people’s success is not your failure. Remind yourself that you can go at your own pace.” To lessen the stress, try positive affirmations like “I am brave” or “I am accomplishing my goal of going to the gym.” And remember, repetition is key to building confidence, so the more you do it, the more comfortable you will become.
Try Off-Peak Hours
Consider going to the gym at less populated times if you’re anxious about crowds. “Generally, early mornings and after-work hours will be busiest,” says Davis. “Going when it’s not as busy means avoiding most of the hardcore fitness junkies,” which can help you feel less intimidated.
Bring a Friend
It’s easier to get through moments of self-doubt when you have a workout buddy. “Sometimes it’s helpful to have a friend to laugh with or help keep your focus off of others,” Rosen says. “Also, having a gym partner can help you to navigate unfamiliar equipment and encourage you along the way.”
For many people, the first time back to the gym after a year of home workouts is stressful. If you are anxious about the environment itself, check to see what COVID policies and safety measures your gym has in place, and plan accordingly. “Look at what you can control,” says Rosen. “This may mean bringing your own sanitizer, towels or equipment like mats and resistance bands, to the gym with you, or wearing a mask at certain times if it looks too crowded.”
And remember, you don’t have to dive into the deep end. Easing back into the gym bit by bit may make the experience more comfortable. Go for a trail run one day, then hit the weights the next. Wear workout gloves if they help you feel safe and cover your face if it makes you feel calmer. The most important thing is to exercise, in whatever shape or form that takes.