Navigating The Gym When You Feel Like You Don’t Belong

By Gwen Wark

The smiling attendant at the upscale London tennis club scans me in, hands me a towel, waves me through. I’m a new member, but this isn’t my first rodeo. I love the gym, and this upscale, south London paradise is probably one of the nicest I’ve ever stepped foot in.

All is well until I hit the locker room, post-workout. I’m a sweaty mess. The showers are on one side of the locker room, and the changing area in another. In the middle are loads of slim, tanned women, fresh from their doubles set, unselfconsciously changing out in the open. They are as different from me as you can get.

And my complimentary towel? Well… I am somehow going to have to run this gauntlet, naked and dripping from the shower, with the equivalent of a tea towel to cover myself — a towel that, if I were an average sized woman, would have been more than adequate.

In that moment, I knew myself to be… gymtimidated. Ugh.

I consider myself to be a reasonably active person. I ride horses, play roller derby, and lift two to three times per week, on average. But as a confirmed size 22 with Hashimoto’s and PCOS, I’m well aware that feeling intimidated by the gym is a very real sensation. Research has found that fear of judgement tops the list of reasons why women aged 14 to 40 don’t exercise, even though arguably we’re a group of people who would benefit from and enjoy it most. To me, it’s unsurprising.

Aggressive, outdated marketing and business strategies deter plenty of people — fat, thin, old, young, different classes, different races — from ever even setting foot in the gym. “You aren’t like these people,” these messages whisper, in the hope that you’ll be inspired to part with your money to “be like them.” As if somehow, a monthly membership will transform you into that 20-year-old, 108-pound athlete with 12 percent body fat, the lungs of an endurance athlete, and the abs of a CrossFitter used in the advertisement. (Photo credit: Nicole Engel)

This is the implied message in an overwhelming cross-section of fitness marketing, and we absorb it with every protein shake we drink. It’s no wonder so many of us are intimidated when it comes to going to the gym!

When you’re fighting that tiny voice that says you don’t belong, before you even walk through the doors, facing down the free weights section in a shared space starts feeling like scaling Mt. Everest.

I know first hand. But the gym can be a fantastic place once you do go. I love my gym! I love how I feel when I go. I love the people I’ve met, the things I’ve learned. I’ve loved cheering on the people around me as they’ve run their marathons, had their babes, rehabbed their hip, won their physique competition. They’re an overall bunch of great people, and I’ve found that most gyms I’ve belonged to (including the south London nudity gauntlet) have had just as awesome a client base as this one, once I got comfortable being there.

It’s that “getting comfortable” part that can be tricky to navigate. How did I do it? How does anyone do it?

If you want to overcome your hesitation and get to the gym, these tips will help you get comfortable with the idea of working out in front of (and perhaps even with) other people.

1. Pick the right gym. You may have to visit a few gyms before you find one that you’re even remotely comfortable with before you part with cash, and that’s OK. You can also consider an independent gym, since these tend to have a smaller, more close-knit community of people.

If it’s possible for you to go to the gym during less-crowded off-peak times, then you may be more comfortable and not have to wait for equipment. Cosmo UK’s study says that 84 percent of women felt too intimidated to talk to the equipment hoggers and would rather end their workout than wait. Heading into a smaller gym at a less busy time helps avoid that possibility and lets you focus on yourself. As you gain confidence and begin to feel more comfortable, who knows! You may meet some new friends, start to visit the gym at busier times, or change gyms altogether as you start to figure out what you really enjoy and how you want to train.

2. Have a solid plan before you go. Research first — will you be meeting with a trainer, or following a workout plan? Many trainers will offer a phone or email consultation beforehand and give you an idea of what to expect. Trying new moves? Practice the basic mechanics at home so you can get comfortable with how your body is going to feel while moving. Is there lingo you need to learn? Chances are someone has already covered that ground for you somewhere on the Internet. Take advantage of available resources before you set foot in the gym.

3. When you get there, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Introduce yourself. Even if a personal trainer isn’t on the agenda for the moment, gyms usually offer a basic gym tour including the facilities and equipment. Some gyms go even further by offering a complimentary session with a trainer, which can really help you understand specific equipment in your gym. Either way, don’t be afraid to ask what a piece of equipment is for and how to safely use it.

Nobody is born knowing how to swing a kettlebell or perform a back squat. Expect the learning curve and know that everyone else went through this, too.

4. Pick interesting exercises. If you’re focused on doing something that really interests you or you find tricky, you’re less likely to have time to focus on negative emotions. It’s challenging, and you’re also not likely to get bored with your routine. I’ve recently added pull-ups to my routine and while you might not expect a 220-pound woman to be flailing around in the air, I’m far too busy focusing on form to mind. They’re too much fun!

5. Find your mindset. Write down your reasons for wanting to go to the gym, maybe on the inside of your workout log, and look at them frequently. If you’re not working with a trainer exclusively, pick out a fantastic playlist and put on some secure headphones to help focus you on what you’re doing. Finally, pick out workout clothes that makes you feel comfortable and excited to train, and keep you safe. You know, something that won’t try to strangle you when it gets caught in the rowing machine.* Try on your outfit and work through your workout moves at home. If you aren’t adjusting your bra straps or having to pull your leggings up every few minutes, you can keep yourself focused on working out.

Finally, remember that there are people out here that support everything you’re doing right now. You’ve shown up, bought the membership, brought a right-sized towel and have every right to be there as much as the physique competitor and the powerlifter.

*Totally not speaking from experience. Really.

You may feel intimidated, but remember: you do belong.

Note from GGS: Creating a warm, welcoming environment in the gym for all people is a much broader discussion than the author can tackle here. If you're interested in learning more, our friend Elisabeth Akinwale recently shared her perspective on this topic with regard to people of color and inclusivity in gyms. Check it out here!

Do you struggle with body image? Have you ever…

  • Felt anxious about clothes shopping or wearing certain clothes?
  • Dreaded going to an event (like a reunion or a wedding) — or even skipped the event altogether — because you felt too self-conscious about how you looked?
  • Found yourself not wanting to be in pictures or videos, or hiding behind other people in the picture to shield your body?
  • Scrolled through social media and felt worse and worse as you went?

If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.

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About the author:  Gwen Wark

Gwen is a writer, mother, and fitness enthusiast. She is a roller derby player and official, currently skating with the Jerzey Derby Brigade. She is a dedicated horseback rider, competing in both local and regional shows. Her current fitness passions include dressage, kettlebells, and lifting the heavy things.

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