Have you felt oh-so-vulnerable, judged, and stressed at your fitness center? Gym intimidation is real, and there are ways to counter it

Fight or flight. The internet describes this as “… a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.” It was first defined by Walter Bradford, an American physiologist in 1932. Smart guy. I don’t think he would have thought it would be applicable to something as simple as working out in the gym.

I am at my most vulnerable in the gym. When I am working, I am not aware of my insecurities, when I am with my dogs, I don’t realise the fat on my body at all, I don’t realise it during commutes, with friends, or even when I am with my partners. It is when I enter the gym that I become aware of my fat, my skin, and my body image issues creep up. If my mind doesn’t take me there first, the gym mirrors would. If that doesn’t, the trainers and their comments about my body would, and if even that doesn’t, then the crowd in the gym is sure to make you want to run. Fight or flight indeed.

Let’s take a step back, and talk about whether this is just general anxiety I am diagnosed with, or is it a universal problem in most gyms today.

It all started because of Hrithik Roshan. I saw him in Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai, and I knew I wanted to hit the gym and be just like him. I was privileged enough to live in a gated society that had its own gym. It was a place where everyone knew each other, joked with each other, and the trainers knew me since I was a kid. It was the most wholesome experience of fitness I had ever experienced. It became my second home. A place where people built each other up, motivated one another, and no one was trying to sell me anything. Then I moved, and I realised that my experience was an anomaly in the matrix. 

I have been to so many gyms, I can’t even count. There was a time I would go to different gyms every week, and put up reviews for people to see, just so they could get a better understanding of the place from a perspective that wasn’t only about machines and fancy changing rooms. I was in search of that wholesome gym once more.

Does it exist? Is there such a place where one can workout without “fight or flight” responses hitting our body and mind? Yes, it does. Though the responsibilities of boundaries and making those gyms wholesome is, unfortunately, our responsibility. 

A lot of gyms are now opening up again, which is great. People want to get back in shape, and there is only so much “at home workout” one can do. Here are the steps you can take into making sure you have the right experience for you. 

Gym membership: Gyms have had it bad during the pandemic. They haven’t earned, and a lot of trainers have tried their best into earning money through online classes. As soon as you enter the gym, unfortunately you are going to be like a gazelle entering a lion’s den. 

Do not buy annual memberships: Annual memberships are very cost effective and tempting. You have entered the gym with a new motivated spirit. It is very easy to sign up for it. Don’t do it. It is a trap.

Instead, what you can do, is if you haven’t used the gym before, ask for a trial session. Post the trial session, make sure you demand only a one month membership. They will really try to at least sell you a quarterly plan. Stick to your guns. Once you are comfortable, you know this is a place you want to workout in the long term. Then go for a quarterly, and eventually, annual plan.

As privileged as this may sound, having a personal trainer is essential when you’re starting a new gym, or restarting your fitness regime. Poor form, not understanding new equipment etc. can lead to injuries and anxiety, which makes you want to give up easily. 

Finding the right personal trainer is a lot of trial and error. You have to make sure you have worked out with most of the personal trainers in the gym before you think of hiring anyone for the long term. Having a personal trainer is like any relationship. It has to be a match. Having a personal trainer also takes away a lot of the anxiety of feeling “alone” in the gym.

Now that we have the nitty gritties covered, in my opinion, here are ways we can counter feeling intimidated at the gym, and navigate the space.

Take a friend

There is a lot of research out there showing that if you workout with a friend/partner, then you are more likely to stick to your fitness goals, and find the experiences in the gym much more enjoyable. It’s been a while since we have met our friends regularly during the pandemic, so this could also be a nice bonding exercise for you guys.

Goals

Please communicate long term and achievable goals to your trainers, and even the gym managers when you’re joining. Goals such as “I need to lose 10kgs before my wedding” are health risks, put pressure on trainers, your own mental health, and you’re basically setting yourself up for failure. Have long term goals. Communicate them, and give yourself room to fail. That way, with consistency, you will achieve those goals. Even if you stumble along the way.

Adding a gym to your life is adding one more space which needs to be safe for you. Being cautious is not only perfectly normal, it is the right thing to do. The last thing you want when you enter the gym is to think about Walter Bradford, and the internet definition of flight & fight.

Lift and smile instead.