Do you avoid the ARC at all costs? Does the thought of lifting weights in public make you cringe? Do you only exercise during off-peak hours? You may suffer from gymtimidation.
The term was coined to describe the fear of working out in public. According to a 2014 survey in the UK’s Daily Mail, the biggest qualms for women are other gym-goers noticing them and feeling unfit. On the other hand, men claim their worst fear is appearing not to know what they’re doing.
I’m guilty of preferring the smaller, women-only gym over the jam-packed cardio zones in the ARC. I also avoid using unfamiliar machines and feel hyper-aware of my every move.
It turns out I’m not the only Queen’s student that can’t stand crowded gyms or feels like they’re always being scrutinized.
Many students admit they only exercise in the early morning or late evening, when the ARC is least busy. Others constantly feel judged for how much weight they’re lifting or how fast they’re running.
But gymtimidation seems to hit men and women hardest in the weight room.
Emma Selleck said she sometimes feels scared to go into the weight room alone because people may think she has bad form.
“One of the things I’m worried about is someone comparing me to someone else that’s there,” said Selleck, ArtSci ’16. She sometimes makes comparisons of herself against others.
But Selleck recognized that her fear is often unfounded. Most people don’t pay attention to anyone besides themselves while working out.
“Even if you think you’re not fit enough to be at the gym, people are giving you props for being there,” she said. Even regular exercisers confess they’ve felt intimidated at the gym before. Callum Owen, co-founder of CrossFit Queen Street, didn’t always feel comfortable lifting weights in public.
“I think everyone’s experienced gym intimidation on some level. And I know when I first started working out, just the weight room itself … can be very intimidating without the people there,” Owen, ArtSci ’15, said. “I think the people that are in that environment are what really define whether you have a good experience or bad experience.”
Most people are under the impression that everyone else is more fit and stronger than them, but that feeling is something that can be overcome with time.
“What you’ll find is, in good gyms at least, people are pretty friendly and they want to share their knowledge,” Owen said. “The people who are knowledgeable and actually want to help you, they’re there to make you better, not just beat you down.”
At CrossFit Queen Street, the goal is to provide an inclusive atmosphere for all skill levels. Owen said their coaches make an effort to always introduce themselves to new members and ensure they feel welcome.
Although I’d never stepped foot in the Queen St. gym before, my initial impression was a positive one. I was immediately greeted and given a tour of the facility. The friendly environment made the heavy weights and complicated-looking equipment suddently seem less daunting.
CrossFit sometimes gets pegged for having a negative reputation, yet my experience visiting the Queen St. facility settled my gym-related anxiety.
Having been in the position of both a gym newbie and CrossFit coach, Owen has seen both sides of gymtimidation.
“I totally understand why people would be intimidated by CrossFit,” Owen said. “People think it’s a really intense program, they think it’s going to injure you and it’s dangerous.”
He blames the internet and the CrossFit Games for these misperceptions. People often post videos of themselves doing crazy workouts that get mistakenly labelled as CrossFit. The Games are the top tier of CrossFit and represent an incredibly small per cent of athletes. Spectators should keep in mind that the Games are the most competitive aspect of CrossFit and aren’t an accurate representation of the sport.
Contrary to CrossFit stereotypes, Owen said the program is “100 per cent scalable”. Athletes can compete at whatever level they’re at and follow a gradual training progression.
Owen’s advice for people experiencing a bad case of gymtimidation is simply to face their fear. “If you really want to start exercising, find a friend because then you hold each other accountable. Find a program where you can actually set goals that are realistic and performance-based.” It’s important to look at the big picture and remind yourself of the benefits of exercise, no matter how nervous you may feel.
“Obviously intimidation is going to be present, but there are so many positives to engaging in exercise. It just makes [you] a better person … in all other aspects of your life,” he said. “It’s worth finding something that you can do that you’re going to enjoy, that’s going to improve your health and wellbeing.”
For the most part, gymtimidation is something that gets built up internally. The imagined situations can be much worse than reality — we picture ourselves wiping out, being ridiculed and laughed at.
“It really is all in your head, the intimidation thing,” Owen said. “If you ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen if I make this choice?’ and even if you just write it out, it’s probably not going to be that severe.” The likelihood of negative events actually occurring is slim. Even if something bad does happen, the consequences won’t be as catastrophic as you imagine.
“Once you see the other side, you see how positive gyms can be, you don’t see it as intimidating anymore,” Owen said. “If you find a place that shows you how to exercise and gets you integrated the right way, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
Fellow CrossFit Queen Street Co-Founder Storm Patterson also experienced initial gymtimidation, but has since adapted a new outlook.
“I think there were two factors that were contributing to my intimidation. One, not knowing what I’m doing in the gym [and] seeing a lot of these big guys, very athletic guys, doing crazy exercises,” said Patterson, PheKin ’15. “The second thing [was] the size thing. Going in there 130 pounds soaking wet and you see guys who are 225 pounds plus working out.”
For Patterson, it all came down to building the nerve to approach fellow gym-goers, even if he was just asking them to explain what they were doing.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that when you’re in that certain environment, you both have something in common. For the most part, people are typically welcoming,” he said. “It’s a courage thing, taking that first step.” Mental health benefits are another motivation to exercise, especially for those who may feel apprehensive about starting a gym routine.
Patterson said studies show how exercise also makes your mind sharper and lets you work more efficiently.
The health benefits of exercise play a huge role in Blake Canning’s regular workout regime. He’s only been working out since September, but he’s been feeling stronger and healthier ever since.
Canning, ArtSci’ 16, describes himself as a short guy who used to be easily intimidated by burly football player-types at the ARC.
“When I started, my biggest fear was someone coming up to me and saying, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You’re barely even lifting, your form’s horrible, get out of the gym!’” he said. “I knew that wouldn’t happen but it’s a fear I guarantee at least a couple other people have.” His worst gym experience was when a “mountain of a man” called him out for bad form. To be fair, Canning said it was his own fault for momentarily losing focus and lifting poorly.
“He was trying to be nice about it, but it was still embarrassing.” Canning frequents the gym with friends, which makes exercising more enjoyable. Nowadays, he doesn’t feel any intimidation at all.
“That’s one thing people should know, is that the intimidation really goes away pretty quickly as soon as you realize no one is going to call you out on … how dumb you look — because you don’t.”
The more students I talked to, the more clear it became to me that gymtimidation is a fear that affects most of us. There’s no easy fix, but supportive friends and a healthy dose of courage make facing a crowded gym more bearable.
After all, we all share a common goal of being active — no one’s there to criticize you or your body.
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