Feeling self-conscious when you walk into a fitness center? You’re not alone. Here’s some advice from personal trainers and therapists.
Whether you just joined a gym, are getting back into going or have shown up consistently, you may experience some anxiety. Will people judge how you look? Will they stare at you or make a rude comment if you do a stretch incorrectly? And oh my gosh, could the machine be any louder?
You may also struggle with exercise if you have asthma or another physical condition. Can your body handle the workout?
Given we live in a culture that places such a high emphasis on appearance and “toughing it out,” it’s understandable that many of us experience gym anxiety. Sometimes, the fear is so strong, that you may not feel able to go even when you want to.
Other than taking your workout outside or doing it at home — which is also valid, if they aren’t signs of avoidance (more on that later) — “shy girl workouts” are an option you may have seen on TikTok.
TikTok creators such as Fitpie Fitness (@fitpie365) and Stephanie Besna (@stephaniebesna) created videos showing exercises you can do if you feel self-conscious at the gym. These are usually quieter movements and/or ones you can do against the wall or even in your bedroom.
For example, this video of Besna’s entails weight lifting in the back of the room with no noisy machines. And this Fitpie Fitness video shows exercises you can do anywhere without machines or weights. (By the way, TikTok is full of more examples at #shygirlworkouts.)
That’s great and all, but what’s the big deal?
Why shy girl workouts are so important right now
Gym anxiety is real and common, whether you experience it or not. Statistically, at least 50% of Americans find working out in front of others nerve-wracking — but as you know, the gym is also hard to avoid because it has so many weights, fitness classes, and machines that many of us can’t afford (or fit into our homes).
You may also face more anxiety right now given where we’re at with the pandemic. “After the 2020 pandemic lockdown, we all had a period of weeks, months or even years when we didn’t set foot in a gym full of strangers,” said Erika Vivyan, a licensed psychologist in Texas who specializes in anxiety. “That means our comfort zone shrunk down to our at-home gym or small group, and we have to build up that comfort zone by expanding it again. We almost always learn to fear what we avoid — even if we weren’t avoiding it out of social worry or shyness in the first place.”
And that’s not all. As alluded to above, fatphobia and diet culture play a part, too. “Additionally, we live in a culture that places high value [on] how bodies look, so it isn’t surprising that gym anxiety is prevalent,” said Sydney Tenney, a primary therapist with Lightfully Behavioral Health in San Diego, California.
Being aware of those reasons and realizing your anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of is paramount for both your mental and physical health. “Having the self-insight to identify that you need ‘shy girl’ moves is incredibly helpful,” said Rachel Trotta, a certified personal trainer and fitness specialist. “When it comes to the benefits of exercise, consistency is everything — so any strategy that helps you to be more consistent will allow you to reap more benefits from movement.”
Even if you don’t struggle with full-blown anxiety in the gym, you may experience discomfort around certain machines or exercises — which shy girl workouts can help.
“Not everyone thinks of them as ‘shy girl’ workouts, but I frequently make adjustments to my clients’ strength training programs because they feel awkward performing certain moves at the gym,” Trotta said. (The common culprits? Hip thrusts and glute thrusts, as well as jumping and gym equipment, occasionally.)
Examples of exercises for those of us experiencing gym anxiety
Need shy girl workout ideas? For cardio, this might look like finding a treadmill against the back wall or even walking outside.
For strength training, the following exercises don’t entail awkward positioning or require great balance, according to Heather Perren, a senior master trainer at Lagree Fitness.
For your triceps:
- Grab a set of hand weights.
- Stand with the feet hip-distance apart, then sit into a mini squat by sending your tailbone back, bending your knees and hinging your torso slightly forward.
- With your elbows hugging your ribs, begin with your palms up.
- Slowly extend your triceps to the soft elbow and return to the starting position. (The goal is eight to 10 seconds in each direction while you feel your core activate.)
- Keep your elbows high, your shoulders relaxed and your collarbones wide.
- Try to perform these extensions for a minute.
For your obliques:
- Attach a resistance band to a door.
- Turn to face one side of the room, grabbing the handle with both hands in the center of your chest.
- Maintain a soft bend in your knees and keep your torso upright with your shoulders stacked over your hips.
- Rotate away from the door toward the back of your space, without moving your hips.
- Slowly return your torso to the starting position.
- Keep your hands away from your chest and keep your elbows lifted.
- Maintain constant tension in your core for the entire duration.
- Aim to perform for one minute on each side.
For your glutes and back:
- Attach two resistance bands to a door mount attached at the bottom of a door.
- Grab both handles and begin by standing in a split stance.
- As you lunge down, both knees will bend into two 90-degree bends, and at the same time, pull the handles in toward you, rowing them at your sides on the way down.
- As you rise back up to the top slowly, your arms slowly release out at the same slow pace as your legs.
- Avoid taking the break at the top (translation: no locked knees or elbows).
- Aim for two minutes.
Are shy girl workouts forms of avoidance?
If you’ve experienced anxiety in other areas of your life, you know making changes to keep your anxiety at bay can be a form of avoidance. Avoidance is the practice of staying away from a place, activity, object, etc. because you feel anxious about it or what could happen as a consequence. While relatable and understandable, it typically worsens our anxiety the more we do it.
“We, being the wise and evolved creatures that we are, realize we can avoid this discomfort by fleeing, procrastination, numbing, etc.,” Tenney explained. “Though this does lessen our anxiety ― albeit temporarily ― we are also communicating to our brain and body that the avoided thing is, in fact, a threat to our safety… We find ourselves stuck in a cycle of anxiety/avoidance.”
Not sure if you’re coping or avoiding? Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I making an intentional choice to do this, rather than because I’m on autopilot?
- Am I doing a shy girl workout as a choice, not because I feel like I can’t work out otherwise?
- Am I making a point of dealing with my anxiety?
If you answered “yes” to those questions, you’re probably coping adaptively, not avoiding, according to Linda Baggett, a licensed psychologist in California, New York, Virginia and Washington who helps women repair their relationships with their bodies, eating and movement.
“It’s also important to ask yourself if it’s interfering with your life,” she added. “If it’s not causing you any distress or inconvenience, or interfering in your relationships, it’s probably fine.” Otherwise, she recommended seeing a therapist to help you work through the anxiety so you can live a more fulfilling, peaceful life.
And if you’re struggling, that’s OK. You’re human. What matters is where you go next. Tenney encouraged mindfulness, self-compassion, deep breathing, talking to a loved one, breaking tasks down into smaller bites and sticking to your values as great next steps.
This might look like talking to yourself the way you’d talk to a friend, inhaling for four counts then exhaling for four counts, bringing a friend with you, starting with the machine you’re most comfortable with, doing a little at a time, and not forcing yourself to exercise if it’s not a value of yours.
Other tips for managing gym anxiety
Gym anxiety, while unpleasant, is normal. It’s also a feeling you can handle. Here’s some advice from therapists that can help:
Reframe your thoughts to be more helpful (with self-compassion)
Vivyan encourages adjusting your perspective. For example, she said, instead of thinking, “Everyone is looking at me and they think I look stupid!” Try instead telling yourself something more helpful and truthful, such as, “I might not know what I’m doing, but I’m giving it my all!” Make sure it feels genuine to you, too, or it won’t be as beneficial.
This skill can go for other thoughts, as well. If you’re worried people will judge your body, you can remind yourself that “other people’s thoughts are none of your businesses, and that if someone is having negative judgments about your body, that comes from a place of ableism, healthism and/or fatphobia, rather than as a valid comment on your worth,” Baggett said.
This will take time and practice, which can feel frustrating, but you’ll get there. “Practice self-compassion,” Baggett added. “It is hard to have anxiety. You are doing the best you can, and you are not a bad person.”
She also said you can pair deep breathing with a helpful thought. For example, she explained if your heart rate increases, remind yourself, “It’s just my body’s response to exercise; it is safe and it will pass.”
Take gradual steps
Baggett also encouraged taking one more step each time you work on facing your fear. “For example, maybe you go to the gym and you just sit in the sauna or walk super slowly on the treadmill, just to let your body get used to being in the gym,” she said.
She clarified time is an important factor, however. “It takes sometimes up to 40 minutes of doing a scary ― but objectively safe ― thing for your body to realize it’s OK and for the anxiety response to dissipate,” she explained. That’s why it’s important to challenge yourself in doable, somewhat time-extensive ways.
Facing those gym nerves is tough, we hear you. But remember: You do have tools and skills that can make it less stressful — and maybe even enjoyable.
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