The Complete Guide to Overcoming Gymtimidation
How to enjoy the gym with confidence—and make it a better place for everyone
The first time I walked into a gym was around fifth grade, to lift weights with my middle school cheerleading squad. Thirty years later, the gym is like home to me. The sights, the sounds and — lord help me — even the smells are part of a familiar, comfortable place.
But not everyone feels at home at the gym. And though no one is obligated to participate in fitness, the job of public health is to make sure that everyone who does want to participate does feel welcome.
We have a long way to go.
One of the most common things that stops people before they start is “gymtimidation”: a fear of going to the gym, or the hike and bike trail, or the outdoor yoga class, or the Zumba studio, or wherever their activity of choice is happening.
I do consulting work with fitness centers, running clubs, and other workout centers on how to be welcoming and accommodating—exactly how to combat gymtimidation. In this piece, I’m going to talk about how gymtimidation happens, why it’s everybody’s problem, how you can overcome it, and how you can avoid becoming a gymtimidator yourself.
Gymtimidation — the Source is Real
Gymtimidation is typically blamed on the victim. People often blame themselves for their fear. Other people (who have always felt comfortable and accepted in the fitness world) blame them, mistakenly assuming that those who are intimidated are just not trying hard enough. That attitude is definitely part of the problem.
While not every gym-goer is a jerk, the reality is that marginalized people deal with all kinds of BS at the gym — racism, sizeism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, and more. Models have taken pictures of nude people in the locker room to shame on social media. Body builders take pictures of people at the gym to shame them. I’ve seen people mistreat newbies, obviously forgetting that there was as time when they were a newbie as well. Yet when I talk about people who don’t feel comfortable in the fitness world, the reaction often turns into a hot, victim-blaming mess faster than you can say “one more set.”
We need to quit pretending that this is some baseless fear that comes out of nowhere.
Fear and anxiety are natural outcomes when people face real repercussions simply for showing up. Worse than that, though, is how the system uses this fear. Understanding this will help you overcome it.
Follow the money
The shocking truth is that gymtimdation is profitable.
Gyms and other fitness centers vastly oversell memberships: they count on people signing up and not going.
A Planet Money Podcast highlighted a Planet Fitness gym with 6,000 members. Their gym’s capacity is 300 people. If everyone who signed up showed up at typical peak times, they’d have to start a fight club in the parking lot to win the chance to work out. This isn’t a problem, according to the podcast episode, because about half of the people who sign up don’t go to the gym even once, and many more go very infrequently.
Gyms are not incentivized to make sure that members get the most out of their membership—and some of them actually seek out members who are less likely to show up. It looks like this: you come to the gym, excited about your new commitment to fitness. They get you all hopped up on a wheatgrass shot from the juice bar, take you through the racks of cute workout clothes, show you the massage and spa area, then and sit you down on a comfy couch that looks like it’s from a fancy hotel lobby to talk about signing you up.
You never notice that they aren’t taking you past the squat racks and assault bikes, and that you can’t hear the slamming of weights over the cheerful club tunes pumping out of the stereo. You sign up.
The next morning, as you think about going to the gym, you’re not thinking about the juice bar or the zen garden — you’re thinking about the squat racks, assault bikes, slamming of weights, and all the things that intimidate the hell out of you about going to the gym. You crawl back into bed, and the gym pockets your initiation fee, smiling like Mr. Burns on the Simpsons.
Understanding this ploy can help you reset your internal dialog, and re-affirm your goal to go to the gym enhance your own physical fitness. Your inner rebel might even be quite chuffed to know you’re defeating the scam simply by showing up.
Advice from the Trenches
I could give you the textbook answers for how to overcome gymtimdation, and if you Google it, you’ll find a ton of articles with the same advice. The problem is, that advice was made up by people like me — people who never really had to overcome it in the first place.
So I got the first-person scoop on what causes gymtimdation, and true stories of overcoming it, courtesy of Fit Fatties, a community I co-founded with fat fitness trainer Jeanette DePatie (creator of the Every Body Can Exercise series). It has over 5,000 members who discuss all kinds of fitness, from a weight-neutral perspective.
Their experiences make them a source of great advice for how to deal with gymtimdation—and their insights can also help you learn how not to be a gymtimidator yourself.
A lot of people talked about struggling with people staring. This happens more to people who live in bodies that are marginalized — people of color, fat people, queer and trans people, disabled people/people with disabilities, people wearing hijab or turbans, etc. But this can be a fear for anyone.
Victoria pointed out that a culture chock-full of fatphobia can be at the center of these fears, explaining:
“Large bodies are used in physical comedy and the “funny” part is that they are in large bodies that are moving. If I fudge a move, lose balance, fall, etc. I feel like I will be laughed at.
Cathy had similar concerns, and found a game plan that helped her through it:
My biggest fear was that any failure or awkwardness on my end would reinforce fat people stereotypes.
I was able to get a partial orientation on some of the equipment and I started with the things I was comfortable with first — treadmill and dumbbells. I found a time of day that works for me and also doesn’t have a lot of people there and I used those times to experiment with the machines. After getting a TON of good advice and support from Fit Fatties, I learned to watch a bunch of YouTube videos on the machines I want to try before I go in. I’ve now used almost all of the machines I want to try.
I planned out my routine before going so I have a game plan. It takes away some of the anxiety for me if I’m going through a plan.
I have a playlist with some great powerful songs that get me going and help me give a mental fuck-you to my fears. I tell myself repeatedly that I deserve to be there as much as anybody else.
Last of all, I think just consistently going and pushing my limits a little bit every time has helped. I still worry about representing fat chicks and what jerks may be thinking, but I also really enjoy the feeling I get when I work out and I’m seeing awesome gains in how much I can lift and my endurance — so it’s worth it to me.
Don’t fear the squat rack (or any other piece of equipment)
Cables, pulleys, loud clanking, wondering if that’s where your knees go…or, wait, is it your elbows? When it comes to comfort at the gym, figuring out what equipment you need — and how the heck to use it — can be more than half the battle.
Some gyms offer free tours of the equipment. Even if you don’t see any notices about it, you can always ask at the front desk. When it’s time for your tour, remember that it’s completely fine to be clear about your needs and goals — whether you want them to keep it weight-neutral, or focus on the strength machines rather than cardio, etc.
If don’t want to take the tour, you can check the gym’s website to see if they offer a virtual tour, or take the at-home version. Do some quick research to find out what kind of machines your gym has, then look them up online and on sites like YouTube.
Carissa used a few different techniques to overcome her equipment-based concerns:
I have always been intimidated by the free weight area of my local gym. I started a new gym plan once that had routines in that area. In particular [there was] a type of squat machine. I knew how to use it, but I was intimidated to go over there, so I asked an employee for assistance confirming what it was for and how to set it up (it was the type you have to slide weight plates onto). She came over with me which helped me be less anxious to use it and know I was doing it properly, so I not only don’t hurt myself but also don’t get judged or laughed at. I also have fit female friends who I looked to for reassurance that I belonged there, because it is a very male-dominated space.
Dodging unwanted advice
Unwanted comments — even from people who think they are being helpful — can be harmful. It happened to Bethany:
As a devoted gym-goer, I took every class I could get my hands on at the gym. After a few sessions in a particular class, a girl pulled me aside and told me how she was so impressed at how ‘brave’ I was for going to the class. I quickly responded to her that I’d be going to the gym 5 days a week for almost 2 years... It was shattering at the time [that] this woman was congratulating me on my bravery for existing as a fat person in the gym.
Thea shared a harrowing story of a gymtimidator, and some ways that gyms could do better:
I quit one gym when I got followed every morning by the same bloke telling me what to do. I’m running on the treadmill, listening to music and he’s talking to me, uninvited, oblivious to the safety risk he’s causing. This went on for weeks and staff just said “oh we know him! He’s just being friendly!” …So I quit.
When I was out of work, I went to the gym at around 3am and it was perfect because it was quiet. Now I’m back in work, I still avoid busy times (pre and post work rushes) but rarely feel comfortable. Gyms tend to advertise how small they can make you and I don’t tend to get on well with that. If I could just go in and work out for the sake of doing it, I’d be happier. I hate the idea that if I’m there I’m expected to be getting smaller or working towards their goals. I just want to lift things and listen to music for a while, why do I need to do anything else?
Sometimes the people doing the talking include gym employees and management. Heather solved this one with a change of venue:
Two women on treadmills next to each other were chatting to an instructor, looked at me get on an exercycle in front of them, and said to each other (and the instructor) exactly what they’d do to themselves if they looked like me. The instructor cracked up laughing. I complained to management (it was against their terms and conditions to talk about other patrons) and management said I was clearly too sensitive, and maybe I should hide at home if I didn’t want “encouragement”.
Props to my local YMCA, where everyone ignores other people working out, unless they’ve got something useful to say (“That machine is broken! You’ll want to use the other one” “Watch out for the end shower — it runs cold after like a minute!”)
Choosing a gym — Finding the right fit
There are practically as many types of gyms as there are gym-goers. Everything from the bare-bones gym with nothing but free weights and Olympic style lifting, to gyms that don’t allow Olympic style lifting, to massive franchises with international presence, to boutique gyms focused on specific workouts like Zumba, Pilates, Barre, etc. Some gyms are full of people in sweats and shirts with stains and rips; others look like you just stepped into an activewear fashion show.
To avoid signing up for a gym that you’ll never want to go to again, don’t just make sure that it meets your needs for things like hours, equipment, and group classes. Make sure that the gym’s style and clientele make you feel comfortable.
Meredith has had luck with looking for gyms that show outward signs of inclusivity:
I’ve had better luck with gyms that participate in the “Silver Sneakers” program. It’s through Medicare and is a program for elderly people that pays for their gym membership, and some gyms have specific classes just for their “silver” members. I’ve found that these gyms just seem to attract a more diverse clientele. This isn’t 100% effective, because there are a few older dudes who feel like they can say whatever they want, but overall I’ve had positive experiences.
Sarah eased her way into it, and pointed out why it’s important for gyms to have diverse representation in their staff and trainers:
A couple of months ago I decided I wanted to introduce more physical activity into my life. I was nervous to go to the free gym at my apartment complex, so I started going late at night before bed, when no one would be there. Every now and then someone else would be running on a treadmill or something and I would panic but exercise anyway. Two months later I’ve built up so much courage I got a membership to Planet Fitness. I love that the gentleman who sold me my membership at the front desk was a fat guy. It made me feel super welcome. I’ve gone four days this week. Bringing a friend with me definitely helped ease my anxiety. And also realizing all of the gym machines have instructions on how to use them! I was so afraid of looking like an idiot. Planet Fitness made exercise easy.
Don’t go it alone
Like Sarah’s advice to bring a friend, you’ve probably heard other advice to “get a workout buddy.” This is usually offered as a form of accountability — that you’re less likely to skip the gym if there’s someone there waiting for you. That’s nothing wrong with accountability, but it’s also not the only reason to go with a friend. Not being alone at the gym can help with every aspect of gymtimidation.
Go in packs! Someone who can keep the activity light and humorous. Also, I am a fan of eye rolling when jackassery happens.
Don’t be a Gymtimidator Yourself
Those of us who have always felt comfortable at the gym may not even know that gymtimidation is a thing. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, and you want to make the fitness environments in which you are comfortable into fitness environments in which anyone can be comfortable, here are some ideas to incorporate in your own gym visits.
Read the room
If someone makes eye contact, feel free to smile at them. If they talk, feel free to talk to them. If they are wearing headphones, playing on their phone, and avoiding eye contact like a nervous Chihuahua, then leave them alone.
If someone looks confused at a machine, it’s okay to ask “Need some help?”. Be friendly and ask from a bit of a distance. Back off immediately if they say no.
Don’t make guesses
Don’t assume that you know someone’s goals, ever.
A blog-reader of mine who was working out for energy while dealing with chemo had a well-meaning gym-goer congratulate her on her weight loss. I’m sure that’s not a story he proudly tells his friends.
Don’t be that person. If people want you to make comments about their bodies or workouts, they will let you know.
Be part of creating a welcoming environment
If you use the maximum weight on a machine, move the pin back to the top so that the next person doesn’t feel like they aren’t lifting “enough” or that they don’t really have a right to the machine.
Re-racking weights is just good manners. Particularly, if you just leg pressed 1,000 pounds, re-rack the your weights so that the person who comes after you doesn’t have to move 850 pounds of weight, all while feeling like their 150 pounds is a waste of a machine.
If you are the greatest Zumba dancer of all time, but you see the newbie behind you watching you and struggling to follow along, consider dropping all the fancy add-ons for a little while so that they can follow you.
Help other people make better choices
If you see other gym regulars engaging in gymtimidating behavior, consider pulling them aside and helping them understand why it’s not cool.
Don’t make it about you
Finally, make sure that you aren’t going around and commenting on people’s bodies and workouts because it makes you feel like a good person. This is not about you. While you’re at it, make sure that you’re not “congratulating” people for not being the stereotype you expected them to be. That is very much about you — which is to say that it’s an opportunity to examine your own biases.
Enjoy the Gym for Your Own Sake—and For Others
In terms of overall advice, Barbara said something that I’ve found works for me in almost any situation where I’m afraid of being mistreated in a space:
What helps me is reminding myself that I’m there for me, and whatever other people are thinking about me in that space is their issue, not mine. Also, I openly stare back at anyone who seems to be watching me extra hard. I always get really anxious before going, but once I’m there, in my head-space, moving and feeling good, the rest tends to wash away.
There are a couple things that I think about when I face fat-shaming or inappropriate treatment in any part of my life, including at the gym.
The first is that I’m not willing to let these jerks affect my life, and I won’t allow their bad behavior to change mine.
The second thing I remember is that my presence there makes a difference. Every day I hear from people who don’t think they can participate in fitness because of what they‘ve’ heard about their size, or race, or gender identity, or disability…until they saw people who look like them doing it.
The more of us who show up, refuse to leave, and claim our space in the fitness world — the more space we’re making for people like us who would also enjoy using the gym. Your very presence there helps reduce the gymtimidation they might have to experience themselves.