Are you terrified of going to the gym? Does the idea of walking into that space create a sense of utter dread and despair? Is this fear eating your motivation and impeding your progress? If this is you, read on…
I’ll also take you through different gym types, and some alternative ways to manage your health and fitness that help you avoid gyms entirely.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Most of us would like to head off to the gym and enjoy a bit of exercise, wash off and trot back home. We’re not looking for hours of gruelling horror or any awkward social interactions…we just want to work out! Why is that so difficult in a place that is literally designed with that purpose in mind!? LITERALLY?!
Most of us aren’t superhumans with 5% body fat. Every day me looks quite average. I’m not someone who wants to starve myself or take enhancers to impress anyone. I eat ice cream, pizza and drink beer. If you met me in person, you’d probably be surprised at how average I look. I have worked out in gyms when I have been overweight, underweight, with and without binders, being perceived as male, being perceived as female, adndrogynous, muscled up to the nines and skinny as a rake. I know what it’s like to fear the gym.
Most of the reasons the gym feels so fearsome comes from the negative perceptions we have of our own bodies and the judgements that we make about other’s bodies. The health and fitness industry has a vested interest in keeping you feeling like you ‘need’ something to ‘help’ you be ‘acceptable and desirable’; so that you never feel quite like you’re enough. Never quite like you deserve that gym space. That space is for ‘gym people’ right?
Gyms are supposed to be places where you can work to improve your physical health. They are your space as much as anyone’s. Here are some of the most common reasons I hear for gym terror, and some ways of thinking that helped when I was scared.
I'm Terrified of Changing Rooms
I hear you. Enclosed single-sex spaces with lots of spots free from sight of the staff, and communal nakedness. Recipe for terror.
Are you scared of being thrown out? Check in advance what the gym policy is and if the staff are trans inclusive. This can help give you the solace that if anything happens, your gym will have your back. It also ensures you aren't accidentally funding a transphobic business.
Are you scared of communal showers? Either ask for a tour or one-off visit so you can check what the facilities are like, or on your first visit just assume you won’t be showing so you can do this check. I sometimes find that even if the showers aren't communal, they have glass doors...also not ideal for someone who likes privacy.
My choice is usually to shower at home.
I’m scared of being misgendered/ binder & packing concerns
I've been surprised by how many guys have worries about packing and the gym. I've discussed this with many cisgender guys to get their take on it. They generally laughed at me - not because I was asking about packers, but because the idea that they would care to check for a packet when all they care about is if you're on the bench they want, made them laugh. In the changing room, it's perfectly acceptable to use a towel as a shield.
Binders on the other hand, are a problem. If you're doing any heavy duty exercise or cardio, a binder will restrict your breathing and could cause you to pass out. If you're doing weights, the last thing you want is to lie on a bench and puff your chest out. Wearing a binder ruins your form and can cause damage...but not wearing one is psychological hell. What to do? The best suggestion I have for this is a combination of wearing a sports bra, loose clothing (hoodies, not 'hanging' fabric like t-shirts) and either bringing a friend or choosing which exerises to do at the gym and which to do at home.
I’m scared I will be assaulted
Both cigender and transgender people have this fear. Gyms are notoriously genedered, full of people on various enhancers which can cause emotional outbursts, and thay are a place where people feel a strong need to perform. As a group of factors, together, this trio makes a perfect storm. There is a lot of territorial swaggering, flouncing, grunting, clanging, back slapping, sweat and all sorts of other things. However, all that being said, what you need to remember is this is a public space which has a lot of witnesses and security cameras. The liklihood that someone will lose it on the middle of the gym floor is actually quite low. They might well strop out, and if you're in a non-commercial bodybuilder gym then different rules apply - but generally, a gym is quite a safe, if sometimes ridiculous, space.
I’m too weak, I don’t deserve to be in the bench area, I’m too fat/slow/skinny
Everyone in that gym is there for the same reasons - get fit, rehab, look good. People are there for themselves. They are focussed on themselves. You are pretty insignificant I'm afraid. Everyone there also started from a place similar to where you are. Most gym goers will have a lot of respect for your efforts - and take solace that those who don't, probably don't know much about what they're doing and spend more time telling you how great they are and lifting weights beyond what they should, rather than taking care to avoid damage with good form. A huge proportion of men in gyms are also on enhancers, so don't compare yourself to them unless you are too (and that isnt your HRT by the way). You absolutely deserve to be there, and you absolutely deserve to take up space.
I don't know what I'm doing
Some of the machines have little plaques that tell you how to use them, so pause when you get to the machine and just have a look for a picture of a body. If that fails, try youtube. If you’re still stuck, see if you can find a member of staff to help, or use the ‘wait and watch’ approach to see someone else using the machine. Another option is to get a personal trainer for a limited period to show you some free weights movements and how to use the machines. So in essence - either look for instructions/someone using the machine, do some prep on youtube or spend some money.
Gyms are notoriously genedered, full of people on various enhancers which can cause emotional outbursts, and thay are a place where people feel a strong need to perform. As a group of factors, together, this trio makes a perfect storm.
Types of ‘Gym’ and Ways to Workout that Suit You
The most scary of all the gyms, these places are usually full of enhanced lifters with elephantine egos. You usually won’t find many women in these gyms (not in the UK anyway).
Pros: Equipment so good that even if it’s a million years old (and some of it is) it still does exactly what you need it to. Once you become a known face and show you are a respectful individual who just wants to workout, you’ll get respect in return. People will put their weights back on fear of death, so it’s tidy. Generally people wipe their benches down.
Cons: Few cardio machines. Often hasn’t been cleaned in several years. Toxic masculinity & rage levels often quite high and needs to be effectively handled by you to keep yourself safe. Expect noise, clinking, grunting and often loud belly laughs (could be a good thing if you’re into that).
Very focussed on community. You’ll work your butt off, but you’ll also feel like part of a crew who are all working together to better one another.
Pros: High intensity full-body activities. There is almost no way you can be part of one of these and not get fitter. Usually have active and engaging communities that expand beyond just fitness to feeling like a social family of sorts.
Cons: Usually very expensive. You need to do your research to make sure the people teaching you know what they are doing. It’s full pelt all the time. ‘Kipping’ movements are often substituted for good form. The founder of crossfit has come under fire for racism.
Probably your worst bet if you’ve got gym fear, because the price range ensures anyone can join, and there is usually no regulation on the gym floor – but also probably the most accessible option for most people.
Pros: Cheap, often open 24 hours. Classes are usually included in the price. Theyre usually now CCTVed up to the gills so fairly safe from that point of view, but on the other hand, there are nearly never any reall staff about.
Cons: Often unclean and so focussed on the low price point that any semblance of customer service is missing. Nobody will tell anyone to pick up after themselves or wipe down benches. People will often take up multiple machines at once, or loiter in groups and create a generally threatening atmosphere. Many of the machines are usually in need of maintenance.
Favoured by your middle-management sorts, which can give a bit of a weird snooty vibe and sadly seems to attract transphobes more readily. Also seem more interested in making their bars look nice than offering good fitness gear.
Pros: Usually look really smart and offer a range of facilities including spas, pools and squash courts. Have inductions so no worrying about not knowing how anything works. Have a lot of staff on hand to help whenever you need. Often you get a free gift on joining. Lots of free classes. Usually kept immaculately clean. Often have recovery options available such as a masseuse.
Cons: Usually very expensive, bordering on obscene in some cases. That snooty vibe I talked about seems really cool, until someone takes a dislike to you for being gay/trans/black/take your pick.
These places are great for fitness, but pretty hardcore. I wouldn't recommend unless you're actually going to do some boxing or know someone there.
Pros: If you're part of the community, it's a good place to channel your rage, workout until you almost can't walk and train in constant competition with others. You'll be made of steel.
Cons: Boxing is very competative and this can sometimes generate unreasonable interactions if someone takes badly to you. Not really equipped for anything other than boxing training, so you might as well workout in the park or at home unless you're fighting.
If you don't like boring carido, can't get motivated or are just generally bored of dragging yourself into a room full of machines, then this is an excellent option.
Pros: High energy with an instructor who will keep you going. The group vibe will give you the social pressure to keep going even when you think you can't.
Cons: Be on time or your whole workout is gone. People will probably want to talk to you, so not one for introverts. Some instructors are so up-beat it makes you want to curl into a ball and plug your ears for a thousand years. Don't say I didn't warn you.
At Home Gym
Best possible option if you have the space and the funds. Convert your garage!
Pros: Kit it out to suit your needs. Be as extravagant or simple as you wish. It's your space, so you have your own tunes, your own gear and you're safe as ever.
Cons: Can be a considerable outlay and eats your house space depending on what your needs are. Lacks social aspects of paid for gyms.
Free, easy to access anywhere, easy to do anywhere. Pretty excellent as an all arounder.
Pros: Follow along on youtube or stream a session, you can do these in the park, on the beach, in your hotel room or your bedroom. The most accessible excerise that helps you tone up and get healthy.
Cons: Not good if you want to bodybuild as they can be gruelling and your energy levels will go through the floor. Often the guys who show you the sequences are already super fit, and when you try to do them, it turns out they are extremely difficult. You need to get your head in the right space and pick the right one for you. Sometimes this last part gets people discouraged before they even begin.
What Did We Learn?
Being scared of the gym is pretty normal, for everyone
The reason for gym fear is probably more to do with how you think and where you go than any actual threat
There are ways to workout that suit you better, you just need to pick your ideal method