3 Ways to Overcome Your Fear of Being Judged at the Gym

by Coach Stevo
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3 Ways to Overcome Your Fear of Being Judged at the Gym

A funny thing happens in studies on the perceived barriers to exercise. If you ask 100,000 people who do not go to the gym, “What’s keeping you from joining the gym?” the most popular answer will be, “I don’t have enough time.”

But, if you ask 100,000 people who do go to the gym what keeps them going back, literally no one says, “I have so much free time!”

It turns out, “I don’t have enough time” is what social scientists call a “socially safe answer.” People feel more comfortable telling scientists they “don’t have enough time” rather than the reason that I hear a lot at parties: “I can’t go to the gym. I’m too fat.”

Since regular exercisers clearly don’t have a 25th hour in the day they’re not telling us about, researchers Hausenblas, Brewer and Van Raalte decided to dig a little deeper into the perceived barriers to exercise, and get past the “socially safe answers.” In their 2004 study, they found that those who lack confidence about the way they look experienced feelings of unease and discouragement regarding exercise participation. They named this phenomenon “Social Physique Anxiety.” This is the feeling that we’ll be judged based on our appearance in an unfamiliar social environment.

Hausenblas, Brewer and Van Raalte’s study documented that many of us are really thinking, “I can’t go to the gym. I’m too fat.” That feeling of judgement is keeping a lot of us from moving more and moving well.

The reality is that most people at the gym are just there to work out. But the perception of judgement still feels very real for a lot of people who are new to fitness. Planet Fitness even addresses this fear in their slogan: “no judgments.”

Many of my early clients came to me specifically because I did not train people in gyms. I trained people in parks and playgrounds, and my clients loved that they could (in the words of one of my clients), “avoid the meat market.”

So how can you avoid the feeling that everyone is staring at you when you’re exercising?

1. Find a better gym. If you are feeling judged at your gym, it might be time to find a new one. There’s even an app to investigate your options. ClassPass allows you to explore the largest network of fitness studios in the United States, and try classes until you find one where you feel comfortable. In addition, my colleague Michele Burmeister founded The Body Positive Fitness Alliance to unite gym owners and potential gym goers who are sick of feeling judged and just want to move and feel better.

2. Skip the gym. Find a class or an activity that is outside of the meat market. Just about every Starbucks has a bulletin board where personal trainers, yogis and bootcamp instructors post about events they are hosting. Lululemon does the same thing, and many bike stores and running stores hosts group rides and runs. Getting outside the four walls of a gym has helped a lot of my own clients feel more confident about the awesome things their bodies can do, and in public no less! I’ve never seen a client so proud as when a stranger stops and asks her about the kettlebell she’s swinging, “How much does that weigh?” Or better yet, the stranger tries to pick up the 32kg kettlebell and can’t even move it.

3. Make your own community. Most studies about the perceived barriers to exercise revealed that people tend to keep exercising because of three things: community, community and community. No matter when people started exercising or for what reasons, statistically it’s community that keeps people showing up. You can recreate this (and avoid the judgment of strangers) by joining together with people you know to form “accountabilibuddy” groups. Friends can walk together, hike together, even hire personal trainers together to form their own bootcamps! If you’re worried about being judged, just remember you can always stack the deck and create your own judgement-free zone in your backyard.

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  • ashley

    Just realize that literally no one cares what you’re doing. They’re not there to improve you

    • jessica

      And that is so untrue Ashley,I can count on 2 hands how many fat comments and “she’s going to break the seat comments” I’ve gotten.

      • J kraj

        So very sad how many haters there are out there!

      • EndOfPatience

        I belong to Lifetime now, but in the past belonged to Gold’s, Powerhouse, the YMCA (a VERY good one), so here goes:

        1. If it bothers you, avoid any gym during meat market hours, which is when the kind of jerks you describe are there. For most that’s after 7:00 PM.

        2. Most of the people there, especially those in excellent condition, are judging you: positively. You’re overweight or out of shape, but you are there working on it. That’s plus points for you.

        3. People may be staring for one of two reasons, a. they’re zoned out and aren’t really looking at anything, or b. they’ve noticed you doing something wrong or dangerous and aren’t sure if they should say something.

        4. It’s easy to be a part of the community: just ask for advice. Most people who are serious about working out will be delighted to give pointers and advice on training and diet. For the price of a question, you can easily get hundreds of dollars worth of guidance. And if you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll be amazed at the support group you wind up with.

        • Christine

          yes, yes, yes, and yes!
          I belong to the Y near me and I would definitely agree with all those points.

      • Jessica, I am sorry to hear this. This is ridiculous and uncalled for. I agree with everything EndOfPatience just said. If you can, try and take a friend with you so you can feel more comfortable.
        Trust me, I’m in pretty decent shape and dudes are always looking at me up and down, it’s a primate thing (a can I take this chump type mentality).

        You should try and spot out the more advanced trainers in the gym that are working out in their own zone (you can target a female if it makes you feel more comfortable; she’ll probably get excited because she’ll be able to take you under her wing).

        Most really fit people love when others ask them questions about the form or how to improve in a certain area. They just want to spread their knowledge. Most people never approach me , but if they did I would talk their ear off about exercises and nutrition. Most are just waiting for someone to approach them and ask detailed questions.

  • Timothy Fish

    Funny that you should mention PlanetFitness. Weren’t they the ones that allegedly asked a member to leave when she complained about a man being in the women’s locker room? How nonjudgmental is that?

    But for some of us, it really is about time. I have a limited amount of time I can spend outside each day, so I don’t want to leave an office just to spend it in the gym. I ride a bicycle frequently and there are trails in the area that I could ride, but I generally ride close to home, because I don’t want to take the time to load up the bike and drive somewhere. By starting from my own driveway, I probably have an extra thirty minutes to an hour that I can spend doing other things. And no, people at the gym aren’t likely to mention how much time they have, because they probably don’t realize how much time they’re wasting driving around town.

  • Nora

    This article has nothing to do with over coming your fear of the gym. It’s about how to avoid the gym and your fear. As an overweight woman who’s been going to the gym for years, all I can say is dive head first into the fear of the gym. Once you go a few times, learn the lay of the land and feel comfortable, you will feel right at home and youll forget all about your antieties. Trust me! Also, don’t forget that those people who you are initially anxious about working out around are probably just as worried about being judged as you are.

  • Nora

    This article has nothing to do with over coming your fear of the gym. It’s about how to avoid the gym and your fear. As an overweight woman who’s been going to the gym for years, all I can say is dive head first into the fear of the gym. Once you go a few times, learn the lay of the land and feel comfortable, you will feel right at home and youll forget all about your anxieties. Trust me! Also, don’t forget that those people who you are initially anxious about working out around are probably just as worried about being judged as you are. We’re all human!

  • J kraj

    Everyone can find the time if it’s important to him or her. If you have an hour to watch TV or scroll on Facebook, you have time. It’s all about what is important to you. I enjoy the comradarie of group fitness classes. I’m not a size 2, but I’m toned and healthy. Wasn’t when I first started my journey to health. I say, just move your body every single day. Find something that you enjoy. And remember that it’s about health and doing something for YOU.

  • scott

    This isn’t about overcoming your fear, it’s about avoiding it. How about that no one is really judging you, make friends to help you out, everyone’s been there. Geez man

  • Shannon Marie

    So basically what you’re saying is that the best way to avoid the feeling of being judged at the gym is to join fitness groups outside of a gym and feel judged by those people. Solid advice!

  • Matt Shadwick

    Worst advice ive ever read in my entire life. Is this satire?
    By telling people to skip the gym or find a different gym, all you are doing is validating the irrational fear they already have! Reality is, nobody else at the gym gives a flying foghorn what you are doing. Surely the tips should be things focussed on building self-confidence. Omg, makes me so mad shit like this gets published.

    • Justme

      Matt, it’s not always an “irrational fear”…. last time i went to a gym some rude lady snuck in with her boyfriend and then they proceeded to make fun of my “fat ass”….. don’t assume you know everything.

    • Kward

      Sir, the last time I went to the gym I got on the bike next to a man and he got so upset and disgusted he got off and went to another bike. The phobia is real but I’m not changing gyms I’m going to show the world I can do it.

      • BobKat

        Maybe his bike was broken? Or maybe he wanted to see a different tv? Or maybe you smelled?

      • B1

        I’d like to hear more about this, and specifically why you think he was “upset and disgusted”. I’ve moved because the TV/IPod connection stopped working, and I’m pretty sure I looked disgusted and upset.

    • BobKat

      THIS!

  • Martin Cuadra

    You know, if you do home workout videos, no one will watch you or judge you, you can go all out for as long as you can, take as many breaks as you want, and your life will be so much better. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t go to a gym.

  • Melissa

    Every single person that goes to the gym is working to be in better physical shape, even the real thin people want more muscle or maybe they were in the same shape once that the scared person is. I go to the gym for myself not to make friends or judge and for the most part I think the other people do too. Whenever I see other people like me with extra cushion I think good for them I hope we all succeed.

  • I thought I was the only one, lol. Well, anyways, I just put up with it. Other people are always going to judge to point and laugh. I just go on with my business. You just have to think of it this way, you are at the gym for you, not for anyone else. If someone is judging you then that’s their problem, not yours. If they have issues, then they’ll say something.
    But, if being judged does bother you, then I would suggest to join a different gym or group. It is important to have positive energy around you while you’re trying to get fit. If you are getting a negative vive then that means the environment is not for you, time to change to different one.
    It’s good to check out the place you want to go normally. I always scope out a place before I put money down. Tours are free. It would also be a good idea to go with a close friend to make the experience more enjoyable.

  • Mockingbird

    You know, my experience at the gym was that no one is looking. Or so it seems to me. Really fit people are obsessed with recording every breath they take in their diaries, so they are too focused to judge. Thin girls flock together and chat about nosense. A few groups of not-so-fit guys also keep to themselves and too busy supporting each other. A few loners like myself exercise and leave. Now, the anxiety of not knowing what to do – this can really be bothersome. And if personal training is too expensive for you (again, like myself) you can hire a trainer for 1-3 sessions to show you how to use the machines and stuff. And most good gyms will give you one free session to show you around anyways.

  • Evgeni

    avoidance. avoidance. avoidance. Grow a pair. Get it done. Don’t just coddle your ‘fear’ of a nice warm controlled environment intended to keep your safe and healthy.

    • Driscoll1980

      Going to the the gym did freak me out at 1st but after going a few times I got the courage to go on my own becoz no one takes notice their too busy doing their own thing

  • Bob Griffin

    I read everyone’s posts . As an obese 308 lb. Veteran who can hardly walk I use the VA pool twice a week and we don’t judge one another. We’re their to get our health back. Like one person said if they don’t like it that’s there problem. How important is this to me? I’m a 77 year old who wants to live not die. Time to go to the pool .

  • DavPul

    1. Was stupid. It’s your head, not the gym
    2. Made it much harder than it needs to be. More like a scavenger hunt.
    3. Is basically impossible. So you get to move from a fake excuse to a real one, because impossible.

    My replacement advice
    1. Get over yourself. No one cares about you enough to watch and judge you at the gym.

    Fin

  • hurr

    How to overcome your fears: run away from them. Worst advice ever.

  • LOL

    HAHAHAHA!!!! This is the most ludicrous blog I have read. When I saw the title, I thought you were actually gonna give me ideas on how to overcome it!! Like “think positive”, or “ignore other people”, or “Just do it!!”, or some other nonsense like that. But you’re actually telling me to run away from my problems?! That’s the worst thing to advice.

  • Katie Marie

    Honestly, people judge sometimes and that’s just how things are. I don’t think it’s so bad that it should drop their goals and run away. I weighed 240 lbs at one point and the main delay in getting back in shape was fear of judgement. I started at a gym, and some people probably judged me at first, but at least I was doing something about it. Eventually the people that judge will see you keep coming back, and making progress. That will make any judgmental person think twice. As the article says, most people are just at the gym to work out, when I see somebody obviously very out of shape at the gym I think “good for them” and then focus on my exercise. I imagine that’s how it is for most people.

  • BeenThere

    There is PLENTY of judging going on in gyms, and often it is by the very employees who are supposedly there to be supportive.

  • angel

    I think the writer is saying find a gym that is less judgmental than (apparently) the ones they have attended previously. They do exist in the north there is healthtrax a totally judgement free environment that offers a villiage feel to all of their members. IT TAKES A VILLAGE.

  • Driscoll1980

    The gym is the best thing I’ve ever done if your determined to do it you will no matter what

  • Mircat1231

    I’m overweight and that was my fear even working with my personal trainer at the gym. Turns out the things I like doing the best were on the side of the gym where all the guys do the most to work with weights. I kept going and would feel so embarrassed but then I started getting a smile, a nod, a thumbs up and every once in awhile a compliment on how well I was coming along. They didn’t care about my weight just that I was sweating and working hard like them! Two guys smiled big when I benched pressed 105 lbs best compliments ever!!

  • J.Henson

    How about revising that article? Start with, don’t give a second thought to the comments of those who chose to be judgmental. We all have our own issues, theirs might be hidden, but they’re just as real as anyone else’s. By commenting on or laughing at other’s physical issues they feel they’re taking the pain away from their own. Give them the “I know” glance, smile and move on.

    Add in: do something for yourself to make the gym a more inviting and exciting place to visit. It doesn’t have to be an expensive music player, or sneakers. Just little touches such as a few new songs or blog to listen to daily. A new work out towel, water bottle style … or even invite a friend!

    Another idea: instead of running away from the gym, alternate it with other activities. Make the Gym your T, Th & rainy day routine. Join the town too-old-to-care softball league on Tuesdays, Walk with other parents at the local High school track on Saturdays… and invite them to try your gym 😉

  • Melissa R

    I used to go to a gym and all the “weight lifters” sat on equipment while texting and when they did use equipment NEVER wiped them down afterwards. YUCK! Not to mention the people that would spend 2 hours on a treadmill. I quit the gym and now go to a cross training facility, kickboxing and resistance bands on alternate days. I’m in my late 50’s and no one there has ever judged me, only encouraged and I did have to put up with the stuff I was. I’m in the best shape since college!

  • BROOKE

    I deal with this every time I go to our gym, and sadly its the staff who think they are better than everybody else unless you are a meat head then they love you. Maybe this is how all gym’s are? Or just my gym? I have only had memberships at the YMCA & 9 rounds. I will say they always treated me like a person and were very respectful. Not this gym though! But I am stuck there for at least another year, paid for membership in cash up front. I just grin and bare it! :0)

  • latinalava

    Pure dedication no matter where or what you do. I lost 40 lb at home and later joined gym 24 hr fitness. I am not going to renew as I have found new at home workouts for next year. I am on my last 5-6 lb to lose and than maintain it . I do zumba and weight training and I get judged by random creep guys glaring or trying talk to me so, I wear a hat and no makeup and they are still annoying and they change people like underwear and there rude some staff and I live in midwest husker state where people are friendly but not my gym. I am counting the weeks and days until my membership expires in March 2016. haters are everywhere is sad but it makes me careless because you have to do you first.

  • B1

    I go to one of the major chain gyms, and to the extent I’ve ever heard any judgment from other patrons, it’s been something to the effect of “that dude should spend a lot more time here” and “he should be lifting, not beating himself to death on the (aerobic equipment type)”. To piggyback on Mircat’s remark, those statements generally come from the lifters, and they are definitely supportive of and encouraging towards people who are obviously very out of shape. I’m no bodybuilder, but lifting got me much faster tangible results (strength, not necessarily weight loss), which is crucial to keeping up the habit of going.
    The judgment from gym employees my be a misperception. At least at the chain gyms, employees get huge commissions from the sale of personal training; at that type of gym, what you perceive as judgment may just be poor salesmanship. The basic business model is to get people to join, pay dues and never show up, but if you do show up, they want to get more revenue out of you.