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Advice on overcoming your gym anxiety



As part of our wider investigation into how gym anxiety affects the nation, we spoke to Dr. Margee Kerr – an expert in the realm of fear. She earned her PhD in 2009 from the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaches and conducts research on fear.

Dr. Kerr shares what it is about the gym which makes it so scary, and shares nine ways to help you get over your gym anxiety and start your journey to getting healthier and fitter.

“Going to the gym can be scary, because it is a social experience, meaning it carries all the potential gains that come with socializing, but also all the fears and anxieties too.” 

“Social judgement is of massive importance to humans, in fact many fear social judgement in public speaking, more than they fear death. This is because in today’s modern world, social interaction and communication are more important to us to get right than knowing how to treat a spider bite. So it’s no wonder that going to the gym alone, a hugely uncertain space full of social judgement, is more frightening for some than needles, spiders, and rollercoasters.“

18% of the UK's non-gym goers would rather stand at the top of a skyscraper, than go to the gym on their own

“Working out in a public space can be just as scary as public speaking, in a gym we might feel like everyone’s eyes are on us, watching our every move, waiting for us to slip up.  As highlighted in PureGym’s survey, nearly 2 in 5 reported fearing they would look stupid in front of others, the same number reported feeling nervous others would judge their body shape.”

“Similar to starting a new job, a new school, or giving a presentation, working out in front of others can powerfully tap into our insecurities. In these moments we inspect ourselves for areas we feel unsure or uncertain of our own competencies. We do this by comparing ourselves to our peers, inspecting how we think we’re similar, better, or worse. We also compare ourselves to our expectations of what we think we should be capable of, our internal representation of our ‘best’ self. “

“Where we might be able to hide some of our vulnerabilities in the workplace or school, our weaknesses feel on full display in the gym, inciting intense feelings of vulnerability, of self-doubt, of fear."

“But fear not, there are many ways to confront and overcome your gym related fears, and as my research shows, it is worth it.”

Tips to Overcoming Gym Fear

From Dr Margee Kerr

  1. Remind yourself that you are in control. "Studies show a sense of agency, or control, makes scary events easier to tolerate and overcome. So, acknowledge, and frequently remind yourself, that you are the one choosing to take on this fear inducing challenge. Your doctor, spouse, family member, coach, etc didn’t choose this, YOU did, which means YOU get to own and celebrate your wins, big and small."
  1. Celebrate your accomplishments as often as possible. "We tend to elevate and focus on the negative, so take time to write out all the steps you look forward to taking and celebrate each one, starting with congratulating yourself for choosing to take on a new challenge."
  1. Make a list of all the positive gains you will achieve by going to the gym, and have it somewhere easily accessible, like your phone. "Fear likes to push all your positive thoughts to the back of your mind and increase anxiety the closer you get to a scary situation. Having your list handy to review before you go to the gym and even on your way to the gym when your anxieties are at their peak, will help give you’re the boost to push through."
  1. Acknowledge your fears. "Take the time to think about what exactly makes you nervous about going to the gym. Is it not knowing how to use the equipment? Judgement from others? A fear that maybe you won’t be as strong as you want to be, or perhaps as strong as you used to be? After each fear you write down, ask yourself why it scares you, and if it is worth giving up all the gains you outlined in #3."
  1. Don’t ignore that you feel scared. "Denying, or attempting to suppress your fears doesn’t work, in fact studies show it does the exact opposite. The more we try to NOT think of something the more salience, or importance we give it, and the more it commands our attention, making it difficult to pay attention to anything else."
  1. Accept you can’t do everything. "We have to accept what we are capable of right now, and for many that’s a hard truth to confront. It’s OK that you don’t know how to work every machine, you can learn. Remember, there’s a good chance everyone around you is scared of the same things! Accept where you are, let go of where you wish you were, and commit to focusing on the now."
  1. Educate yourself. "Fear is all about the unknown, so you can do yourself a BIG favour and reduce a ton of anxiety by making an appointment with a staff member to learn about the gym before your first workout. Learn where the locker rooms, water fountains, and exits are located, and learn any important gym protocol like proper equipment use and class etiquette."
  • Watch our video tour so you can see what our gyms look like before you step foot in one.
  • There are also video guides you can watch before coming in to help you set up treadmills and rowing machine.
  1. Make a plan. "Write down your plan for your first work out in explicit detail, but keep it manageable. For example, it could be as simple as “Drive to gym, walk in the door, put personal items in a locker, take an introduction class, clean up in locker, drive home.”
  1. Adopt a curious, playful, and adventurous mind set. "Think of the gym as an adult playground, because it is! Approach new machines and routines as opportunities to learn, where mistakes are a normal part of trying something new. Give yourself permission to not know how to do something perfectly the first time your try it, or even the second or third time!"

For additional tips to help you ease your way into the gym, check out our Dealing with gym nerves article.

Dr Margee Kerr

Thank you to Dr. Margee Kerr for her advice on this subject. You can read more from Dr. Kerr in her book:  SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.

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