What to do if you’re too self-conscious to join a gym

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on July 6, 2012

How to find the ideal health clubHere’s a deep philosophical concept to ponder: Mean people suck.

But are you going to let them stop you from getting fit?

I’m talking about the problem many overweight women have with going to a gym. They feel incredibly self-conscious in health clubs that appear to be overstocked with glistening, physically perfect specimens of manhood and womankind. They sense they’re being watched, judged, and deemed unworthy. They simply can’t relax and just work out.

If that describes you, I completely understand your fear. But I also believe that most gyms are much less hostile than you might think.

If you’re self-conscious about joining a health club, here are some strategies that could help–and the most important is choosing the right facility in the first place.

Know what you’re getting into

Investigate thoroughly before joining any club. Every gym has its own personality, and I recommend that anyone seeking membership check out at least three or four facilities before making a decision. (For one thing, this will allow you to get a better price: you can find out which gyms are having the best specials, then play them against each other to encourage your sales rep to sweeten the deal.)

On the day or days you’ll be checking out the gyms, wear something that makes you feel confident: that blouse everyone says is a great color for you, your favorite jeans, those shoes that make you feel like a million bucks.

Visit gyms during the time of day you’re most likely to work out: the crowd at 6 a.m. will probably be very different from the after-work bunch.

If you’re especially susceptible to sales pressure, take a friend along for moral support. And rehearse your lines before you go: “I’ll be making a decision within a few weeks, but today I just want to learn as much as possible about your facility.”

Walk around each gym with an open mind. What kind of people do you see? What age groups? What’s their fitness level? A gym whose members come in all ages, shapes, and sizes is likely to be a more laid-back place than one that caters to elite athletes.

How does the gym feel? Yes, I know you’re intimidated just being there, but try to pick up on the vibe. Are the people at the front desk warm and friendly? Are employees smiling? Do the customers look like people you could get to know?

What kinds of classes are offered? Are they primarily for ninjas, or is there a range for people of all ages and fitness levels?

What kinds of qualifications do the trainers have? This is a tricky topic because many gyms will hire just about any warm body, send her on a weekend course, and call her a trainer. The best gyms will have at least a few trainers with credentials from NSCA, ACSM, NASM, or ACE, to name a few of the best certifying organizations.

And while you’re gym shopping, don’t forget the good old YMCA. Its facilities are often among the friendliest, most inclusive health clubs around.

Put your best foot forward

Let’s say you’ve summoned your courage and begun a gym membership. The first couple of visits will be the most difficult, until you learn your way around and start to feel like you belong.

If you need some new gym togs, this is a great time to shop. It’s amazing how a few new tops and bottoms can get you psyched up.

Don’t forget to put on some confidence too. You know the saying “fake it till you make it”? It’s great advice here. You’ll be nervous inside, but work on walking tall and reminding yourself that you have a right to be there.

It may feel like people are staring—and sure, it’s possible that your new gym has a jerk or two among its members. But the most likely scenario is that the majority of people aren’t paying you a whole lot of attention. It’s also likely that others there have noticed you’re new and are silently cheering you on. Honestly.

In order to ease into your membership, talk to the staff about the least busy times at the club. Those might be the most comfy times for you to work out until you gain confidence.

Don’t be afraid to ask the staff to demonstrate how the machines work. And consider hiring a trainer for at least a few sessions so that you can get accustomed to the major pieces of equipment.

Think about joining a group class right away. After a session or two, you’ll start making friends and feeling more at home in the club.

Challenge your self-talk

Joining a gym may have been a major step outside your comfort zone. Of course, that’s where all the possibilities for growth are!

When you find yourself jumping back on your hamster wheel of negative thoughts, try to catch yourself and recognize that they’re just, well, thoughts. You know—stuff like “That guy is staring at me. He probably doesn’t think I belong here. I shouldn’t have worn these tights—they make my butt look big. That size 2 woman looks really snooty . . .”

In fact, you don’t really know what’s going on in other people’s heads. And even if you did, would it matter? Maybe the snooty-looking buff woman in the corner had a really horrible day. Maybe the guy who looked at you was thinking about how much you remind him of his cousin. And even if your tights do make your butt look big, who cares? Do you really think anyone is going to remember that for more than two seconds?

Your thoughts aren’t reality. And you can talk back to them. Keep reminding yourself that yes, you do belong there. Combat negative thoughts by remembering every small victory: the day you added five minutes on the elliptical trainer or 10 pounds on the leg press; that tired but proud feeling you had after spin class last week; the fact that you’ve joined a gym at all.

If you’re willing to take the risk of joining a good health club, I guarantee you’re going to believe it was worth it. A few months from now, you can be the friendly face welcoming a shy new member to your favorite gym.

 Interested in solid, successful strategies for fat loss? You’re invited to my free teleseminar at 7 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 10—”The 7 Weight-Loss Secrets Women Over 40 Must Know.” Register here!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suzan St Maur July 6, 2012 at 11:18 am

Great advice, Mary! I might even gather up my courage and hit a local gym now…. ;-) Although I’ll probably stick to riding horses as they can’t talk or laugh at my fat belly…!

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2 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Animals are great that way, aren’t they? My dogs never look at me strangely when I’m slouching around in my worst pair of jeans, a ratty T-shirt, and no makeup. :-)

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3 Erica July 6, 2012 at 11:33 am

I remember when I first started going to a gym before I lost 50 pounds I was VERY self-conscious! I signed up at an all womens gym and that definitely helped. Plus, there were WAY more people who looked like me then there were slim women so I quickly got over my fears!

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4 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm

That makes absolute sense to me. I’d say that describes my gym as well. Very few “perfect” people!

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5 shira July 6, 2012 at 11:56 am

Mary this is very good, practical advice for women who are ready to make a change but feel some intimidation regarding the gym. My crowd at 6a is very different than the women who refresh their makeup for night time classes!

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6 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Ain’t it the truth? Thanks for commenting!

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7 Pamela Hernandez July 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Great advice! I will never forget my first time at the gym where I started my journey. I was so scared that I lasted about 10 minutes on the treadmill before I turned around and left. I came to realize that most people there were just like me -trying to get healthy and completely absorbed in their own workouts. :)

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8 Suzanne
Twitter: WorkoutNirvana
July 6, 2012 at 7:11 pm

This is incredible Mary. Such good advice. The culture of gyms varies widely. Some are full of people who are truly unfriendly. Others are laid back. There is a definite vibe to gyms so pay close attention to that before joining.

Whether we like to admit it, everyone is judgmental at least some of the time. I judged a woman harshly in the gym before – she was killing it (which I admired) but seemed unfriendly and a bit territorial. But when I actually talked to her one day, she turned out to be the coolest person. And she had been admiring me, just like I was admiring her. So the judgments go both ways – if you’re new to a gym, go in with an open mind and don’t give steely glares to those who are fit and working out hard. People are in the zone… most are not concerned with impressing anyone and not watching you. Work hard and don’t worry about what others think. You deserve to be there.

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9 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 7, 2012 at 11:37 am

Thanks, Suzanne! I’m willing to bet that I look pretty unfriendly when I work out. I’m not, actually, but I’m completely in my “zone” and attempting to focus 100 percent on the task at hand. I’m 100 percent approachable from the minute I walk in the door until I begin my workout. And at that point, I’m in my own little world until the workout is done.

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10 nikki July 7, 2012 at 10:25 am

At the gym, no one cares. Everyone has their headphones on, head down and does their thing. No one will judge you. I’ve seen everything from 400+lb people in wheelchairs using weights to anorexic looking people gong nuts on ellipticals, young & old and everything in between. Besides, you never know if the person next to you is someone who has just lost 100lbs.

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11 Caitlin @ ArtemisPrime
Twitter: questforfitness
July 9, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I’ve been nervous before going to weights for the first time in a new gym, but for the most part I think people are pretty like-minded and supportive.

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12 Lisa
Twitter: lisaeirene
July 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Silence those voices!!!! You can DO IT!!!

I was 250+ pounds and self-conscious about my body–especially since I decided to do swimming to lose my weight. But I got over that voice and just did it. After all, no one could see me once I was IN the pool. I am so glad I got over it because it was the best thing I did. I lost 100 pounds and I felt confident and proud every step of the way!

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13 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 13, 2012 at 7:24 am

Lisa–I love what you say. Perfect encouragement for other women who can be inspired by your example!

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14 Matt @ Share It Fitness
Twitter: ShareItFitness
July 12, 2012 at 11:27 pm

Kind of funny….I could always sympathize with people who would talk about being afraid of the gym or “free weight area”, but truthfully, I just couldn’t understand it; I always thought it wasn’t THAT big of a deal and something they should just get over.

Welll…apparently all my years of lifting and lack of stretching has left me pretty stiff and inflexible. My chiro recommended yoga to help limber things up. I’ve never really tried yoga before, but thought no big deal. Yesterday I was all set to take my first class at one of my neighborhood yoga studios…Made it inside and immediately had about 6 yoga chicks all spandexed out immediately turn and stare me down the second I opened the door. Now, I consider myself extremely fit..I’ve been working out religiously for years…but I completely froze. I felt totally out of my element, had no clue what I was doing, and thought everyone was judging me. I got a bit flustered, think I mumbled something about class schedules and made a quick dash for the door.

End of the day, I have a much greater appreciation for those people that feel insecure in the gym yet stick it out anyways. I had no clue what they were going through until I was in their shoes..and let me tell you, it’s not fun! Great article..will definitely be back to read more of your stuff!

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15 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 13, 2012 at 7:25 am

Matt, thanks so much for your comment! And honestly, I’ve had the same experience in yoga classes. Weight rooms? No problem! But yoga is still out of my comfort zone. I go . . . but I’ve learned that I have a lot to learn. :-)

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