Willson: Don’t let intimidation keep you out of the gym

Lauren Willson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

Starting any new kind of fitness routine is daunting, but doing so can be especially terrifying in the context of an unfamiliar gym. When I first got into fitness four years ago, not knowing the difference between a barbell and a kettlebell, I stumbled upon a word that perfectly described the fear of what I was getting myself into: Gymtimidation.

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Gymtimidation refers to the idea that one will be judged or mocked in a gym setting, and such condescension may be due to any number of reasons. The most common are body insecurity and self-critical comparison, feeling out-of-shape and uncertainty about how to use equipment. 

Gymtimidation is not insurmountable. With the right mentality, it can be easily overcome. In no time, the gym will feel like your slightly sweaty home away from home. Physical activity and aerobic exercise have consistently been linked with enhanced memory and cognitive ability according to the Boston University School of Medicine. These are only a couple benefits that come with confronting gymtimidation.

I was once an exercise newbie paralyzed by gymtimidation. Now, I workout six days per week and feel strong and confident during every moment of it.

A comparison photo of Lauren Willson showing the differences in appearance between when she first started lifting weights versus her current physique.
When I first started lifting (left), I was worried about what others thought and how I looked. Today (right) I work out six days per week and do it because it makes me feel amazing, not because I want to appease anyone else.

Body Insecurity and the Comparison Trap

We all have days where we feel less confident about our appearance, and seeing perfectly airbrushed bodies in magazines and on social media doesn’t help boost one’s confidence. Fortunately, a positive correlation between physical activity and mental health has repeatedly been shown in studies, including those in the Journal of Mental Health. 

Although anxiety and depression may be reduced, that doesn’t necessarily mean your self-esteem will go through the roof. So if you feel self-conscious when you’re just beginning to work out, strive to focus on small improvements.

Since many gyms feature full-wall mirrors, imagine these reflective spaces as areas to monitor your form when exercising, not as an excuse to criticize your body. Dancers don’t stand at barre in front of a mirror because they are critiquing their stomach muscles; they’re attending to the movement of their body and making sure it is articulated in an expressive way. Worst case scenario, find a gym without many mirrors like Iron Prodigy on College Avenue.

The “comparison trap”—repetitive thought patterns focused on comparing your own appearance to those of others—is another body-centric issue that can contribute to gymtimidation.

It’s easy to look around and see nothing but ripped, muscular bodies surrounding your own, which you may see as weak or soft. This is most likely not the case. Studies have shown that we tend to underestimate our own beauty, according to research by the Association for Psychological Science.

Fitness Level

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One of the biggest hurdles to visiting the gym on a regular basis is feeling out of shape. If you believe you’re so far gone that there’s no way you’ll ever achieve X, Y or Z, that is exactly what will happen. If you adopt the belief that everyone starts as a beginner, it becomes much easier to forgive yourself and your perceived shortcomings.

Start small. If your goal is to run a mile and you haven’t put on tennis shoes since 2015, start by jogging a quarter mile and work your way up from there. If you want to build strength, gradually add weight over time, called progressive overload, to condition your muscles into consistent growth.

Although cardio exercise has great benefits for your heart and overall health, don’t discount the numerous advantages of weightlifting. According to Livestrong, lifting weights can reduce your risk of osteoporosis, increase lean body mass and metabolism and improve your balance, among other perks.

Equipment Education

Whether you’re a cardio newbie or a budding bodybuilder, it’s crucial that you know how to use properly exercise equipment. There are a couple different avenues to self-education.

The first is online research. Don’t confuse true expertise with a well-designed blog—when it comes to reliable sources that can educate you on the fine details of treadmills, dumbbells and TRX bands; Livestrong, Muscle For Life and Bodybuilding are a few good sites to start your research.

The second option is talking to people well-versed in fitness. Ideally, these people would be personal trainers or coaches. If for some reason your gym does not have trainers the next best option is to talk to frequent gym-goers who clearly use proper form and understand the various avenues to different fitness goals.

Gymtimidation is a real phenomenon, but it can be defeated. If you are truly devoted to reaping the benefits of an active lifestyle, it’s worth confronting the fear. You won’t be judged or laughed at. If anything, you will be respected and admired for devoting time and energy from a busy college schedule to a pursuit that enhances your physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Collegian Columnist Lauren Willson can be reached at letters@collegian and online via Twitter @WillsonLauren