Gym anxiety is not all in your head

Gym anxiety isn’t something you made up

Gym anxiety is not all in your head. I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blogs, tips and tricks on how to overcome this fear of judgment, of being seen, or just going INTO a public exercise forum. The problem is, they all tell you how to trick your own mind out of something we genuinely experience as a bigger person, every time we try to better ourselves by starting a new workout regime. 

Picture this, you’re sitting in your car outside of a gym or perhaps a cycling bar/yoga studio with every intention of turning off the car, opening the door and heading towards it. Yet you sit there. Anxiety spiking, fear running a little rampant in your mind.  This isn’t the first time you’ve tried to make good on your promise to get more fit.  Yet, every time, there seems to be this invisible fear of judgment holding you hostage. 

You watch as people walk in and out of the gym, smiling, sweaty, and happy.  They are also already at a level of fitness you aren’t sure you can even achieve. Every doubt, insecurity and the terrible things you’ve said to yourself go racing through your head.  Suddenly a tear slides down your cheek and with a feeling of utter defeat, you turn your car back on, pull out of the parking lot and head back to your normal routine. 

The struggle is real

Sound familiar?  I’m sure it does, I can’t even count how many times this has been me.  What I just described was something I went through a few years ago, sitting outside of a very well known gym in my hometown. I was so amped to start a new weight lifting routine, what I didn’t expect was the struggle just to get into the gym.  Trust me though, when I say gym anxiety is not all in your head.

It’s really not all in your head

What came next was a slow and painful process to make myself a home at the gym.  It took me three more days of crying in my car before I said to myself “F*#@ them Amber, who cares what anyone else thinks! Do you want to die in this car or try to live your life?”  So I went inside the gym.  This is where I learned, very quickly, that gym anxiety is not all in your head. 

If you imagined that it was all roses and happy sweat, I hate to disappoint you, my friends.  It took weeks of going every day, sneaking off into a small corner of the weight area. Doing what we fat people do best, trying to not be noticed. I couldn’t look in the mirrors that surrounded me. Not because I didn’t want to see myself, I was more afraid of looking up and seeing other people watching me. I saw the way the other weightlifters, both men and women, would stare at me. Sometimes just glances, a lot of times more openly.  I had broken rank and entered into a world I couldn’t possibly understand. 

Not a downhill ride

I would love to tell you that eventually, things got better.  In some ways it did. After a few months of consistently going, and getting physically stronger I saw my confidence grow as well. Yet, sadly, I was still an outsider. Very few people tried to talk to me, or get to know me.  Some of the more pompous gym rats would even steal or “borrow” my equipment while I was using it! A total breach of gym etiquette!


gym anxiety is not all in your head

Given more Tenacity than Grace

It’s by gods pure driven design that I was given more tenacity than I was grace. I say this because the harder it was to swallow the judgment, the more I dug in and went anyway. Eventually, I had a few people start talking to me, encouraging me. I even made a friend or two. An elderly man told me his wife thought I was such an inspiration!  Great words, and yet they made me feel judged as well. I’ll get into that in another post. 

The point is, gym anxiety is real. Why do you think gyms that promise “judgment-free zones” have popped up all over the country?  We crave the ability to better ourselves in a place free of judging eyes and whispers.  What’s worse is this anxiety isn’t limited to just the gym.  I’ve talked to so many people of size over the last few months, and the one thing they all tell me when I ask them if they have ever tried something like a yoga class is “My body can’t move like those smaller people can! I can’t embarrass myself like that!”  The reality is your body CAN move like that, but our mind holds us hostage and creates a story that won’t allow us to really try. 

It’s not really your fault. Our entire lives, fat people have been taught in one way or another to do whatever they can to blend in. I get it, when you stick out, that’s when those damn judging eyes settle on you and you can feel yourself shrink inside. 

A System designed to use you.

I am going to make a bold statement here, but I want you to pay close attention okay? Here it goes: The fitness industry uses fat people, while catering to fit people. Did you catch that? The fitness industry is designed to use people like us.  They love our monthly debits from our bank accounts for gym memberships we never use. Those of us full of hope and inspiration to change our lives and our habits. We all go in, join the gym with plans of grandeur.  Not realizing the environment we have just signed up to pay for is not even remotely friendly to us.  

The layouts, the equipment, everything is designed to cater to the gym bunnies/rats. Why is this? Simply put, they expect our determination to fizzle out. They have the same doubts in us that we have in ourselves when it comes to the longevity of a steady work out routine.  We fumble around on the equipment, trying to not look or feel stupid as we learn how things work. It’s an almost helpless feeling sometimes. It downright pisses me off if I’m being honest. 

Fighting multiple battles

Here’s some more painful truth. They often aren’t wrong, they are just right for the wrong reasons.  They think we are lazy, or too ingrained in bad habits to fully commit.  I have a different theory.  I think we, as people of size, are fighting a multitude of opponents. Think about it for a second, our first opponent is ourselves, just getting out of the car and going IN. This is a fight we make every single time we decide to go into a gym or work out facility. Next comes the judgment. Whether that judgment is real or just perceived in our minds really makes no difference, its the next opponent we face. 

Then comes the battle of feeling out of place, like we don’t belong.  That shows up everywhere. Watching the person next to you run for over an hour, as you huff and puff at a semi-fast walk. The opponent of comparison is such a mind-killer. It’s in this battle that we really start to take damage, because this turns back on us and makes us think “well I can’t do that, I will never be able to do that!”. Just like that, despair is gripping us and making us feel like we are a hopeless case.

It's time for a fitness revolution

How do we beat the anxiety?

Well, that’s a good question. now that you know gym anxiety is not all in your head, how do we beat it?  I think the answer depends on what kind of person you are. For me, I’m just stubborn enough that I lower my head and bulldoze my way through until I create my own little hole in the world I’m invading.  For others though, I know it’s not that simple. I know the fear and the lack of mental and emotional peace in a gym environment keeps them from trying to create the best life they can for themselves.

I honestly think it’s time for a fitness revolution. It’s time for us to take joy in our bodies and stop being afraid of what others think. We, as people of size, need to stop hiding in the shadows.  It’s our time to create environments where we belong, feel loved, and can shed the shame of living in a bigger body.  I truly believe that if you are constantly hating the body you are in, you will never be able to change that body. There is nothing wrong with loving who you are now! Not a DAMN THING wrong with loving yourself now. 

So what if your belly gets in the way? Who cares if your thighs rub together when you run? It’s no one else’s business if you need props to do planks, or if you need to use a chair because getting up and down off the floor is impossible at the moment.  The first part of truly getting over the gym anxiety, is accepting your body. Loving your own unique design and understanding that it’s more than ok if you can’t bend forward without touching your toes because your belly gets in the way. 

Give self-worth a try

After reading this post today, I want you to do a little project.   I want you to go to your mirror and look at the things on your body that you always look at with disgust or despair. For me it’s my stomach, for you it could be your arms, thighs, belly or butt. Hell, it could be just about anything. I want you to spend a few minutes in the mirror and really look at what you have been fighting with for so long.  This time though, when the horrible thoughts come into your mind, I want you to stop them and remind yourself this. “I can’t change what I hate until I love what I want to change. There is NO ROOM for hate in growth”  

It’s true, when you are so focused on what you hate about yourself, that emotion fills up all the space in your mind and soul. There is no room for love, happiness, or peace.  What’s worse is there is absolutely NO SPACE for growth, and what is life if it’s not an experiment in personal growth?

I know the world of public exercise is a scary place, and I’m not saying jump right in, (unless you’re just a stubborn soul like me!). Just because you know that gym anxiety is not all in your head, doesn’t mean it should win.  What I’m saying is if you want to beat the anxiety,  take the time out to love yourself.  To truly become friends with the flesh that houses the beautiful person you are. 

Bottom Line

To recap, gym anxiety is not all in your head, but it doesn’t have to have control over what you experience in this life.  By taking the time to truly learn who you are you will be able to accept what your body can do!  If you learn that its ok to take exercise and movement at YOUR PACE, I promise you that you will find amazement, joy and true happiness when it comes to creating movement in your life.  

This is your life, my friend, it’s time to start living the best life you can. I’ll be doing a lot more posts around fitness and fatness as the weeks progress. A new and exciting project is stirring in my mind and I’m eager to share it with you as it unfolds! As I always say, you are NEVER alone. If you have more questions about going to the gym and what to do in the face of judgment, feel free to reach out, or leave a comment I’ll answer as soon as I can!  It’s time for a fitness revolution friends!

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Tired of battling low self-esteem, zero self-worth, and an emotional eating addiction, Amber created Amberable to share her journey with those who may be struggling. Hoping to empower, inspire and heal others like herself