January 6, 2011

Fear and the Fitness Facility

I know what it is like when I walk into the class for the first time and nobody talks to you and nobody looks at you and they are in their little groups and you’re just kinda…waiting for it to start at the back, close to the door so you can make a quick exit.
This quote came from my own research as a graduate student and represents 100s more that I have collected over the years. Her story related to her first experience walking into a fitness class....she never went back. The fear and anxiety that many novice exercisers face when entering a fitness center for the first time can be quite debilitating. Fitness culture and the barriers it creates (unconsciously) happens to be one of my research passions and one I continue to examine in various environments (the military, the education system).  So it wasn't too surprising to me when I received an email from a very close friend of mine in severe panic about her first visit to her new fitness center. Back and forth the emails went as she detailed (very honestly I might add) her feelings of fear over all the "what ifs" of her very first visit.

Unfortunately, many think of the
gym experience like this....
 What if I get lost? What if I don't know what I'm doing? What if I can't get a cardio machine? What if I look like a fool? What if they tease me (that one broke my heart a little, but it is an honest fear that many share)? In the end, I received a more positive email detailing her visit.  Of course, none of the above occurred, but it sure made it difficult to walk in. How many of us go through the very same thing? How many don't go to the gym for this fact alone....feelings of intimidation and fear?

I have worked in gyms my whole life. I have coordinated fitness programs, headed up departments, and trained over 600 personal trainers.  When I walk into a fitness facility, I still experience feelings of intimidation. I work out along side some very big gentlemen lifting some pretty heavy weight (and grunting  loudly as they do so)...no matter what my experience or education, I still cringe when I walk in. So if it's happening to me, it's got to be happening to others.  You are not alone.

A typical reaction by many at
the thought of going to a gym.
How many members are we loosing
over unfounded fears? How can
we change this?
There is a large body of research examining fitness culture (why fitness people do what they do, wear what they wear, talk like they talk) but I won't bore you with the gritty details (unless some really interested reader should comment that they would like to hear more.....hint hint). But I will provide you with "Kathi's Secrets to Fitness Center Success".  These are based upon years of field research in the trenches of the weight rooms and cardio rooms on Vancouver Island and throughout Canada and I hope that they help you feel more comfortable should you decide to venture into such an environment.

Secret #1:  Most of those big guys lifting those big weights are lifting incorrectly (and really don't know what they are doing - it's the odd one that surprises me).  There is a culture that tends to celebrate testimonials (Look at me, I drank toilet water and I'm shredded now!) over research (studies that aren't paid for by the companies and are reviewed in a non-bias way through other researchers - "peer-reviewed"). Therefore, you can imagine how the "if buddy is doing it and he looks like that it must be good" way of learning could lend itself to injury or ineffective training (pssst...if you lift slower and more controlled, you could break through that training plateau you seem to be on).

Secret #2:  No one is looking at you when you come in or workout; they are too focused on what they are doing. This is one of the most reported fears of novice exercisers and a very understandable one. The truth is, everyone is there for themselves and are either looking at themselves in the mirror or into a great song on their iPod. It's funny, although they are a group of people in one room exercising together, exercise really is an individual activity. Even in the group fitness classes you will find people focused on the mirror or the moves and not on anyone else.

Secret #3:  Everyone goes through a learning phase.  I have seen some really interesting ways to use the equipment when "newbies" are trying to figure it out without assistance. Even then, I didn't burst into laughter and point, I remembered the time when I did the very same thing (and so does everyone else...unless they are a complete a**). The one mistake many "newbies" make, however, is not asking for assistance. It is very important to have a tour of the equipment before using it. If the club doesn't offer it unless you pay for it, find another club...it should be complimentary (oohhh....if I only had the guts to open my own facility).

Those about cover it. If you are considering a gym membership I highly recommend the following to make it easier for you in every way....
1. Get to know the equipment before you start to workout.
2. Understand the protocol of the gym before you use it (wiping down of equipment, sharing weights when busy, etc.)
3. Get to know the staff and ask for assistance when you need it.
4. Avoid taking the advice of anyone unless they have the certification / education behind them. Just because "Jane" looks fabulous in that Lululemon outfit doesn't mean she knows what she is doing in the gym...those could be fake bum cheeks for all you know.
We can be thankful that this trend didn't continue.  I
remember the day teaching aerobics with a thong
body suit over white, short tights....oh the horror!

Personally, I love the fitness center atmosphere because it forces me to be social. I meet many new people and always have friends to workout with (although moving from Victoria has proven a little challenging...I remain positive). I believe that if you join a fitness class you do get to know those around you and do cultivate a social connection that may help you stick with your program. Just don't let those silly spandex-cotton outfits get to you....I still workout in a cotton t-shirt and whatever pants I can find (my socks don't even match)....but maybe that's why I can't find friends at my new gym?  Check out my blog post under "Fitness Leadership" about not needing the fancy clothes to exercise. That, in itself, can be a huge - and unnecessary - barrier.

Now...I just need a few financial backers and I'll open my own center!

Here's the proof..that's me on the podium screaming at a
gym full of aerobic instructors and participants (a very...very long time ago).
Don't you just love the colour co-ordination, waist-bands and hair scrunchies?


  1. If you want someone to be with you following your orientation sessions and eliminate fear, you will likely need to hire one of the Coaches on a private 1-on-1 basis.

  2. Hi Best Gyms;

    That is very sad...but very true. I would like to think that those who work at the facility would keep their eyes open for people who need assistance (and provide it without payment). This is how the YM-YWCA operated when I was Health and Fitness Coordinator. We offered complimentary strength training at all times. Don't you love the not-for-profts!

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.
    All the best!


  3. If losing weight is your goal, then make this a priority that you focus on completely. This means you'll have to arrange your schedule to be sure you have time to get proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise. In cruisecontroldiet.com site I found a very potent and effective to achieve your ideal body. They offer a simple technique but gives a tremendous effect.