Evidence-based Fitness

How to Overcome Gym Anxiety and Lack of Motivation

Understand the real reason you missed your workout—and never miss another one

John Fawkes
Jan 7 · 11 min read
Photo by dubajjo via Pixabay.

Most fitness experts have misdiagnosed the problem of why people don’t follow through on their fitness goals.

Typically, the issue is described in terms of people not having time to exercise. In fact, everyone has the time—they just choose to spend it on something else. The reality is that if you‘re not working out consistently, it’s because you have chosen not to. This is where it gets interesting, however. When coaching my clients, I find that this is where real work can be done in establishing an exercise habit.

On a basic level, there are three reasons you might choose not to exercise:

  1. You don’t feel motivated to exercise.
  2. You do feel motivated to exercise, but you feel even more motivated to do other things instead.
  3. You feel anxious about exercising, even if you’re motivated to do it.

This article won’t address the second issue — the other things you’re motivated to do may be entirely productive and desirable, or even more important to you at this time. But, for most people, it’s #1 and #3—and that’s the focus of this article.

Anxiety over going to the gym and lack of motivation to work out is frequently mentioned in the same breath. As you can see, however, they are two different problems. This article will help you identify the difference.

The second section gives you strategies for building your exercise motivation, while the third offers anti-anxiety strategies. Finally, the fourth section includes a few strategies that my clients have found effective when dealing with both problems, either individually or when they occur in conjunction with each other.

The Difference Between Anxiety and Low Motivation

Gym anxiety is often confused with a lack of motivation to work out. However, while the two problems frequently coincide, they’re nonetheless separate issues, and in one important way, they’re actually opposite problems to have.

Psychologically, lack of motivation is a low-energy state. Subjectively, being unmotivated is the opposite of being excited. Objectively, people tend to be unmotivated when they’re fatigued from prior physical activity, haven’t slept well, or are otherwise tired.

Unsurprisingly, then, the methods for dealing with a lack of motivation often involve raising your energy level — taking caffeine, listening to heavy metal, and so on.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a high-energy state. You’re more likely to be anxious if you have a lot of energy, particularly energy that you’re unable to burn off for whatever reason. And because anxiety is a high-energy state, anti-anxiety medications tend to be depressants that lower your energy level.

Many people try to fight gym anxiety the same way they fight a lack of motivation, and this is a big mistake. In many cases, the cure for anxiety will be the opposite of what you would do for a lack of motivation — lowering your energy level, rather than raising it.

Strategies to Overcome Low Motivation

Use stimulants

Contrary to what many athletes believe, caffeine doesn’t do all that much to physically increase your strength or endurance. Instead, caffeine’s beneficial effects on exercise performance are mostly brain-mediated. Caffeine supports exercise primarily by increasing the motivation to exercise while reducing subjective sensations of fatigue.

According to the research, these effects are typically seen when people ingest somewhere between three and six milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, or between 1.36 and 2.72 mg per pound of body weight. For most people, that equates to somewhere between 150 and 600 mg of caffeine.

Since caffeine tolerance starts to build up with ingestion of as little as 1.5 mg/kg of body weight, you should use as little as necessary to get the desired effects. Don’t aim to get that “I’m on meth” feeling that some pre-workout stacks can give you; just use the bare minimum needed to motivate yourself to get to the gym.

You also have to consider how caffeine will affect your sleep — it can reduce the time spent in deep sleep well after you’ve stopped feeling its effects. As such, caffeine should mainly be used for morning and mid-day workouts.

For evening workouts, higenamine is a viable alternative. This little-known stimulant has caffeine-like effects, but with a half-life of only 15–30 minutes, it’s completely out of your body within two hours. That makes it an ideal caffeine substitute for evening workouts.

Sit down until you crave exercise

Exercising for too long makes you crave rest, but the reverse happens, too — prolonged inactivity can cause you to become antsy. Sit down long enough, and you’ll feel a growing craving for physical activity.

You can use this. First, get a sense of how long you can sit down before you start feeling the urge to get up and move around. Before your scheduled workout, sit down for longer than you can tolerate — if you start getting the urge to move around after an hour of sitting, start sitting down 1.5–2 hours before your workout.

Now, when you get the urge to move, resist it. Force yourself to keep sitting down. The urge to get up and move will keep growing, but keep resisting it until it’s time for your workout. By that point, it’ll be a relief to finally get up and start exercising.

Have cheat meals only after workouts

Allow yourself a weekly cheat meal (or two, or three), but only after your workouts. This has the dual effect of making cheat foods a reward for doing your workouts, while also timing those extra calories for the post-workout window when your body needs them most.

Like the previous tactic, this motivates you to work out in the short run, while in the long run, it can make workouts more enjoyable in and of themselves by associating them with a pleasant stimulus.

Reward yourself unpredictably

One of the more fascinating areas of behavioral psychology has to do with reinforcement schedules — how often and consistently a behavior is rewarded.

Studies have shown that a variable ratio schedule does the best job of motivating people to engage in a habit, and also makes the habit most resistant to extinction once built.

Gambling, particularly with slot machines, follows a variable ratio schedule — you win unpredictably, and that’s believed to be the main reason for gambling addiction. Many video games now use this same design philosophy to keep players playing the game for longer.

By attaching a variable ratio reward schedule to the desired habit, like exercising, you can motivate yourself to work out and make it easier to stay in the habit of working out over the long run.

One way to do this is to roll a dice after each workout you fully complete, giving yourself the desired reward — like a cheat meal, a few hours of TV watching, or a glass of wine later that night — only when the dice comes up a 5 or 6.

If you’re achievement-motivated, logging your workouts and trying to hit personal records has much the same effect, since personal records happen unpredictably.

Note that these rewards are not entirely random, but semi-random — you can’t guarantee you’ll get them at any given time, but your own efforts are necessary to even have a chance at getting them. The reward is still connected to hard work, just in a way that’s more motivating than a more consistent reward schedule would be.

Strategies to Overcome Anxiety

Reframe anxiety as a reason to work out

A few years ago, a friend talked me into going rock climbing with him. He goes rock climbing every week. I, on the other hand, had done it maybe three times in my life. Mainly that’s because I’m deathly afraid of heights.

After a few rounds on the two easiest walls in the whole gym, my friend tried to talk me into climbing an intermediate-level wall with a slight overhang. After I admitted that I was afraid to attempt the climb, he said, “well now you have to do it.” He was right. I attempted the climb — unsuccessfully, but I tried it.

The point is, I made the climb not in spite of my fear, but because of it. I wanted the self-respect that comes from overcoming my fears more than I wanted to climb a wall.

If you’re afraid to go to the gym, that means you have more to gain from going to the gym — not only will it get you into better physical shape, but it will help you overcome your fear and become the person you want to be.

The next time you feel fear, reverse your response to it — rather than avoiding your fear, lean into it and reap the benefits.

Cut out stimulants

Stimulants such as caffeine are commonly used pre-workout to enhance exercise performance, as mentioned before. Although they are commonly believed to physically enhance strength and endurance, more recent research suggests that caffeine enhances exercise primarily by increasing motivation to exercise while reducing the perception of effort.

Stimulants tend to increase both motivation and anxiety, sometimes leading to a situation where you want to do something, but at the same time feel anxious about it. So it is with caffeine — it increases anxiety, particularly when you consume the high doses common in pre-workout supplements.

Most people with anxiety disorders understand this and avoid or severely limit caffeine consumption in response. However, people who are anxious but are also trying to exercise more often frequently consume pre-workout caffeine in an attempt to enhance their motivation or physical energy level, and this is likely to backfire.

Instead, if anxiety is impacting your ability to work out, avoid stimulants in general, and in particular for about two hours before workouts.

Tire yourself out

People who are anxious about exercising tend to exercise half-heartedly, worried that some unspecified bad thing will happen if they go too hard.

This ends up making the problem worse, however, as it leaves them with pent-up energy that only gets channeled into more anxiety.

Remember, anxiety is a high-arousal state. It’s harder to be anxious if you’re tired. Instead of letting your anxiety scare you out of breaking a sweat, channel that nervous energy into your workout. Push yourself harder than feels comfortable. You’ll end up tired and sore, yes, but once you tire yourself out, you won’t have the energy to be nervous.

Use anti-anxiety supplements

Relying on chemicals obviously shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice, but anti-anxiety supplements can be helpful for dealing with gym anxiety. The key here is that you want to pick something that is a) proven to work, b) not habit-forming, and c) free of side effects, such as drowsiness.

There are a few that fit those criteria.

The first and most widely-used is the amino acid L-Theanine. Theanine has calming effects without being sedating and impairing one’s ability to focus. As Mike explains in this article, theanine can cancel out the side effects of caffeine, such as anxiety and jitters, which makes the combination of caffeine a powerful yet safe and accessible nootropic stack. That also means the combination can be useful for people who suffer gym anxiety, yet also feel the need for some caffeine to give them energy for their workouts.

Ashwaghanda is another nootropic supplement that was mentioned by Mike and Marius in that article. Used for centuries in ayurvedic medicine, ashwaghanda now has a large body of evidence to support its use as an anti-anxiety supplement.

Finally, low-dose CBD can be useful for fighting anxiety. Be sure to keep the dosage low, and use an edible or tincture that is pure CBD, rather than a mix of CBD and THC. While some people swear by THC as a workout aid, the reality is that it puts people at great risk of injury. Read this article for more information on CBD dosing.

Above all else, it’s important not to think of supplements as a magic pill, an easy fix, or a substitute for doing the deeper work of tacking your anxiety at the source. Always use the lowest dose that produces benefits for you, and always keep dealing with your anxiety by other means. Never make the use of supplements your only strategy.

Things That Help With Both Anxiety and Low Motivation

Find your optimal level of social engagement

Some people prefer to work out alone. Some prefer to work out with a partner, while still others favor group classes.

Workouts are more motivating if they conform to your optimal level of social engagement. You can think of that as falling on a scale that goes something like this:

  1. Work out alone, completely blocking out everyone else. Wear earphones, face the wall, etc.
  2. Work out alone, don’t talk to anyone — but don’t go out of your way to tune them out either.
  3. Work out alone, exchange a few words with other people from time to time.
  4. Work out with a partner but don’t talk all that much, or work out “alone” but talk to people you know at the gym.
  5. Work out with a partner, and spend a lot of time talking to each other.
  6. Group class in which students exercise alone, like Zumba or SoulCycle.
  7. Group activity where students directly interact with each other, as in playing sports or taking a martial arts class.

Figure out where you fall on this scale and design and plan your workouts accordingly.

Relax and have fun at the gym

If you consistently feel anxious at the gym, you need to change that. Sometimes the direct route is best: break the mental association between the gym and anxiety by consciously relaxing at the gym.

This can take several forms, including:

  • Meditating at the gym either before or after workouts
  • Using the sauna or jacuzzi after your workout
  • Eating a meal at the gym’s cafe before or after your workout
  • Reading a book before or after your workout
  • Listening to relaxing music at the gym, either before, during, or after your workout
  • Practicing deep breathing exercises between sets

Those last two deserve particular attention since, unlike the others, you can do them during your workout, thus creating a closer association between exercise and relaxation.

Likewise, motivation can be increased by having fun at the gym. While this may sound similar to relaxing at the gym, the presence of fun and the absence of anxiety aren’t quite the same things. Ways to have fun at the gym include:

  • Design your workouts to prioritize fun over effectiveness if there’s any physical activity you enjoy.
  • Read a book or magazine or play a mobile game at the gym.
  • Talk to friends or a workout partner during your workout.
  • Listen to your favorite music while you work out.

Again, the last two deserve mention because you can do them during your workout. Some of the methods recommended for relaxing at the gym may also contribute to enjoyment, depending on the degree to which you associate fun with relaxation.

Have a meal or shake at the gym before your workout

People typically eat after a workout in order to fuel muscle growth. That makes good physical sense, but psychologically, eating beforehand might be better for anxiety.

Eating a protein-rich meal increases dopamine production in the brain, while a carbohydrate-rich meal increases serotonin. Although dopamine would improve motivation, serotonin is of more help in reducing anxiety — in fact, an excess of dopamine in the absence of serotonin could contribute to anxiety.

That being said, the exact ratio of carbohydrates to protein should therefore depend on how much

You do still want a fair amount of protein in this meal — just not at the expense of carbohydrates. A juice smoothie with some protein powder might be ideal if your gym has a smoothie bar.

Consuming this meal at the gym has the added benefit of associating the gym with the pleasure you get from consuming food, which will condition you to like the gym more over time. By having this meal or smoothie at the gym immediately before your workout, you’ll condition yourself to feel calmer at the gym.

Anxiety and lack of motivation are not the same things. Some people suffer from one or the other; some from both. By using the proper strategies, you can overcome either or both of these problems when they arise. And in the long run, you can conquer them completely and learn to love exercising.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

John Fawkes

Written by

Los Angeles-based personal trainer, online fitness & nutrition coach, and health & fitness writer. https://www.coach.me/JohnFawkes?ref=ModAV

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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