A survey by the Bodybuilding Warehouse has found that 58% of us find gyms terrifying. More terrifying, even, than exposing our winter-white, cellulite-dappled flesh in a bikini.
Actually, this makes sense. A beach is democratic, a leveler, all body types are represented, and the fact that everyone is half naked makes you forget about it; it’s a salutary reminder that, actually, it’s Hollywood actors and supermodels that are the genetic aberrations, not the rest of us. Gyms, by contrast, and despite their admirable focus on health and wellbeing, community and fun, can feel alienating places, especially for the uninitiated.
There can be something rather dispiriting about gyms. Especially when you think that essentially they are making money off the idea that you – as you are now – are not good enough, not healthy enough, not slim enough. Gyms trade on the notional promise that, by putting in the hours on the treadmill, or rowing machine, you can achieve your best self. Your self, as it stands now, being rather pudgy around the edges. No wonder so many people suffer from gym anxiety, when the whole thing is predicated on a feeling of personal deficiency.
Then there are the gyms themselves, with their exotic local fauna, like the girl on the treadmill next to you who’s wearing a crop top and hot pants, seemingly with the specific purpose of making you – and every woman in there – feel like a bloater. But, you know, good for her. Such discomforts pale in significance when you look down at your grey marl leggings to notice how the sweat has seeped through in the exact places intended for maximum embarrassment (crotch, under the bum, back of the knees), and the top you’re wearing has climbed up to expose a distinctly un-toned flash of belly. It’s a wonder we don’t run screaming from the place. Actually, we do: it’s called joining a gym and never using your membership.
Gyms are also boringly gender-divided. Women are as rare as snow leopards in the weights area, where men gurn and groan in the mirror as if undergoing some masculinity initiation. The treadmills, the cross trainer, the wave machine, are traditional female-heavy zones, but sometime you want to lift a heavy weight and you’re not going to do it with all those sweating men staring at you. Then there are the TRX pulleys, the Viprs, the kettle bells – if you can get to them. My gym has a square of mats in front of a mirror that is fiercely contested real estate. Once you’ve found your space you have to grab your equipment and guard it, defending with violence, if required.
According to the survey, we experience social anxiety every thirty minutes in a gym. That’s because everyone is watching each other, evaluating each other, comparing bodies. It’s completely unnerving. There’s a weird competitiveness at work. The last time I went, the girl on the neighbouring cross trainer began matching my pace until both of us were going at it in a complete frenzy. After a few minutes I realised we looked totally mad and I jumped off the damn thing, but that’s the thing: gyms turn people into nutters. All our weirdo tendencies come into play. And men aren’t the only ones staring. Where I’m a member, the glass entrance to the gym floor is opposite several rows of machines. As you come in and out of the room, every eye in the place swivels towards you, as if you might be about to burst into song. It’s ghastly.
The thing is, it needn’t be. Gyms need to do more to make their members feel welcome, including helping people use their machines. (Surprisingly few do.) There’s no need to feel anxious if you know what you’re doing. And as for what to wear, I advise you to steer well clear of grey marl anything and stick strictly to black sports leggings. I buy my sports tops two sizes too big because I hate how they creep up when you run. Sweaty Betty in particular are good for extra-long fitness tees and vests.
The MD of Bodybuilding Warehouse, Kieran Fisher, says “The best way to get over gym anxiety to is to remind yourself that the gym is a place for physical activity, and to set yourself achievable goals – so you’re going with a clear plan of action. Once you have this in mind, worries and anxiety of what you look like, or how you’re acting, will soon be forgotten.” In other words, familiarity breeds confidence. Actually, more than anything, you should remember that no one really cares what you look like at the gym, or in life. They’re too busy thinking about themselves. Even when they’re staring right at you.