Leaping Over Mental Barriers to Fitness

The fitness industry can be confusing, misleading, and scary. Or it can be full of wisdom and encouragement. What’s your perspective?

Leah Segedie  (@bookieboo) over at Mamavation.com asked her blogger audience to write a post about what could make the fitness industry more approachable and friendly to everyone. As she explains in her widely read blog, she was previously overweight and extremely intimidated by working out in gyms. Everyone seemed to be thin and/or athletic and she felt very self-conscious even walking in the door.

This isn’t uncommon.  Even if you are athletic and/or thin, you might be nervous walking into a new gym. Is everyone looking at me? What if I make a mistake? Will I stick out like a sore thumb or make a terrible mistake?

I know that walking into a gym is scary; I’ve written about feeling intimidated numerous times. But what I see as the bigger problem is how intimidating a weight room is to walk into – you can hop on a cardio machine and tune out. But lifting weights when you’re a newbie can be very intimidating, even for a guy.

My perspective has never been from a position of being overweight; I know that just being a woman or just being new to weights is enough to make the weight room intimidating. And I’m sure if you don’t feel confident about your appearance then it’s even more nerve-wracking.

Overcoming Intimidation

The question is, how do we get around this intimidation factor? We need to get around it because getting into the weight room is crucial to your health, and I know this even more since becoming a personal trainer. Weight training not only strengthens your bones and increases your metabolism, but it helps you lose weight faster. Changing your body composition is one of the greatest benefits of strength training.

First, let’s not blame gyms for our insecurities. In my view, when we blame external things for our fears, we’re only feeding them. When I have a fear, I have to gauge how badly I want the result. Do I experience some temporary discomfort in order to gain a fantastic benefit? Or do I throw in the towel and decide it’s not worth it?

Get ‘Tude

There’s an attitude you get after doing scary things regularly that enables you to do more scary things. You start to have a self-confidence that no one can affect. You are hell-bent on getting what you want, even if it means being uncomfortable. I’ve seen this in other people and I admire it greatly. Leah over at Mamavation now has major badass ‘tude and it’s served her incredibly well.

I see all kinds of people come into the gym with goals and aspirations of changing their bodies. And you know what? I admire every single one of them, just for coming in. It’s scary as hell to join a gym and it’s scary to see a personal trainer for the first time. But these people are doing it and they’re owning it.

Sure, there are some gyms that are reminiscent of a bar on a busy Friday night. And there are “meathead” gyms that cater mostly to macho dudes. Hey, these gyms serve a purpose, but they are probably not for you.

It’s a matter of picking the right gym. The gyms I’ve belonged to and worked in are filled with regular people – some single, some married, some losing weight, some gaining muscle. Well-meaning people who are doing their own thing and not passing judgment. We’re all there to accomplish something, and we each have our own story.

When you believe in yourself and your goals, you’ll take that step to go into the gym. You might hire a personal trainer to help you learn and feel more comfortable in the weight room. And if your gym is messed up, you’ll take your business elsewhere. That’s not going to stop you though.

Many things are scary the first time. It’s not the fault of the gym (usually)… it’s just the nature of trying new things. Starting a new job, going to a party, joining a class, meeting new people… Any time you don’t know anyone, don’t know what you’re doing, or feel like you could be different from everyone else, it’s scary.

So let’s not blame the gym or the fitness industry for our insecurities. Identity your goals. Find the right gym and the right trainer. Take a deep breath. And GO. The next time, it’ll be easier.

36 thoughts on “Leaping Over Mental Barriers to Fitness

  1. Ahhhh! My experience is that there are lots of cool people at the gym – people willing to help. For example, I wanted to bench press one day with the bar/weight and asked for some help just to make sure I was ok. The guy was super friendly and was happy to help me for a few minutes.

    I can’t stress enough on getting some training time with a trainer – it’s sooooo helpful! It’s a great orientation to what is where, what to do with what, and proper form. If I didn’t know much about anything, I would definitely feel very nervous about getting anything done at a gym. Exposure and orientation will definitely lead to comfort – or it has for me.

    The mental barrier? It’s my biggest problem. I still don’t like being uncomfortable or pushing myself – I just don’t trust my body.

    Oh well… I keep trying though 🙂


    • Me too… lots of cool people, most of which want to be left alone to do their own thing, frankly :). Of course, I agree about the trainer, for an orientation or long-term training like yourself. They’ll push you to your limits if you don’t want to :).


  2. Great post!

    I think it has a lot to do with routine. I’m anxious and intimidated whenever I try a new gym or new program. But once I do it a few times, it becomes “the norm” and it’s not scary or intimidating anymore.


    • Lisa, I couldn’t agree with this more. For some reason it’s very scary to change our schedules or our routines. Even changing the exercises, using different machines, or joining a gym class. The nice thing is we’re all alike in this way.


  3. Love the Get ‘Tude! Most of the times in most situations it is ALL about attitude. Even when you put the red cape of attitude on you’re still gonna feel nervous, shy, fearful, intimidated. Ask questions and put forth effort. I am way more impressed by the newbie who is out there just doing their best!


  4. To be honest, I was pretty intimidated by the gym in MANY ways when I first started.

    Pick your silent saboteur:
    – Everyone else is so confident
    – Everyone else knows each other
    – Everyone else is lifting more than me

    I was never an athlete in high school, in fact I was a guitar player in several bands, so it was a tremendous departure for me to walk into my local gym that was filled with all the moronic jocks from high school. That being said, becoming determined to change my life and sticking to the path dictated by my fitness goals was one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself.

    I agree with Kris too, even though she’s Krazy :), a trainer is a HUGE asset especially when you’re starting out. I just picked a trainer that looked the way I wanted to look (you wouldn’t ask someone with jacked up hair for a haircut would you?), and vowed to make like a sponge and soak up every little drop of fitness knowledge he’d offer.

    If you’re thinking about committing to a fitness journey today, then my advise to you is to start it TODAY! That way by the time the New Years Resolution crowd hits you’ll already have almost a month of experience, and then YOU”LL be the “expert” in their eyes.

    Rock it!



    • Love hearing your story, Matt. It’s by sharing that we help others! Yeah… there’s a lot of reasons to avoid the gym or personal training. But the one reason you should do it – getting to your goals – should be the only thing you keep your eyes on. Well said.


  5. I’ve been teaching for over 25 years and still find the weight room a bit intimidating! No matter how many machines you “know,” there are always new ones that are confusing or require a master’s degree in programming to understand the settings. I always grab the floor trainer and ask for help, ignoring my sense of embarrassment.


  6. I’ve struggled with being intimated! This summer I took a personal training course and I was not only the heaviest one in the class (a size 16 at the time, down from a 22) but the oldest at 34! I felt old and fat. The first day in class I wanted to cry and run out of the room. But I held it together and grit my teeth. I kept telling myself that I had a lot to offer and that potential clients being “Mom’s Like Me” would likely feel more comfortable around me. I was totally new to weight training, having beed a cardio junkie. Much of the reason for taking the class was to learn for my own self, and to hopefully help other women down the road. I was embarrassed when it came time to practice on each other and I had horrible form, and could only do ONE push up from my toes. I went home buried my insecurities in a bowl of MM’s and the next day put my workout gear back on and went in for day two of the class. That day I volunteered to have my measurements taken in front of the whole class, I figured it was my way of telling myself I was ok with this. Go big or go home, put your best effort in! The thing is, my insecurities were entirely in my own head, I was the only one that ever questioned if I belonged. So I finished the class, I studied hard, and I put what I learned to practice on myself. I am happy to say I can now do 22 push ups in a row from my toes LOL. One of my proudest moments was when I did my practical exam, and it was at the COED GYM (I often workout at the women’s gym) and I worked with my “client” like I owned that space, protecting our equipement and area like a proud wolf!


    • That’s some inner strength, Katie. Believe me, I’ve been the oldest many times, including in my new job. And wow – 22 pushups on your toes?? That’s fairly rockin girl!! You really are an inspiration the way you’ve overcome mental barriers. And you took a class to further your knowledge, even though it was very uncomfortable at first – you’re one strong mama.


  7. I make a good living as a fitness trainer for many reasons, not the least of which is that I own a private gym. There’s no judgment, no intimidation, and the student is the center of attention. I know there are many who can’t afford the environment and service which I offer, but more and more places like mine are opening up every day.

    It’s amazing how relaxed a person who is obese or out of shape or whatever, becomes when there is nobody else around but the trained eye to help them exercise. What I learn from this is that deep down people often have low expect ions of themselves, but sense the high expectations of others.

    Also, I’m not a fan of mirrors in the gym . I have mentioned this here before, and I understand the utility of mirrors for the cultured fitness enthusiast. However, the duality of mirrors fixed to the walls of gyms everywhere works against obese and out of shape people.

    I can safely suggest that a majority of gym goers are there due to a poor body image. Hmmmm; a room full of wounded minds touting an inferior self-image, and lots of mirrors to remind them of why. Sounds like a formula for an emotional collapse. Either that, or a reason not to return to the gym.

    Oddly, I’m missing snow right now….


    • You make good points Roy. I can see why people would love that environment. I’ve never understood the aversion to mirrors… although they are there to help with form, I suppose people feel like they’re in the spotlight. If someone can’t look at themself in the mirror with self love, they will learn how in the gym. People need to learn to love themselves no matter what their size, and looking in the mirror is part of that. So, I have to disagree with you on this one 🙂


      • I hate mirrors! I don’t look like “them” – and without the mirrors, I feel very strong! With the mirrors.. well…. Although I did learn some fundamental olympic weight stuff (no weight, just pvc stuff) and the mirrors were very helpful. But we went into a studio by ourselves. I would have NEVER done that stuff in front of people! I’m totally uncoordinated and clumsy!


      • Kris, you do look like “them:” Someone who takes care of herself and gives it her all. When I was doing classes, I was very self conscious. I was completely new to the movements and felt very clumsy and uncoordinated. This went on for a long while! I did get the moves after awhile, but in the end decided that I loved the freedom of training myself… And not trying to keep up with 20 other people with wildly varying abilities. I feel much less self conscious doing my own thing in the weight room than in a class. In the weight room I’m moving about and not in one place for very long. Classes are amazing ways to stay motivated and give access to fitness for many. But as you say, personal training provides a little haven for learning the stuff we need to do on our own.


  8. I am glad I bought personal training sessions from my gym. I would have not even gone to the gym after I joined had I not signed up for sessions. I didn’t sign up with just one trainer so I’ve had to sign up for a time then find a trainer that I liked. I’m super bummed I sprank my ankle and train now or do any of my cardio classes. This blog is so spot on when it comes to types of gyms. I used to be a member of Curves & it was weird doing the circut in a circle bc people would want to talk too much. 😦 I just wanted to go in & leave.

    Everyone has been very helpful at my gym since I joined in May. 🙂


    • Nice! I’m really glad to hear your experience with personal training was positive. It’s a bummer about your ankle, but rehab is the most important. You’ll be back on your feet in no time… IF you take the time you need to heal. Sounds like you are!


  9. As a fat person who sometimes attends the gym, my personal experience has been that the others are so focused on they are doing that I could pull a treadmill upon myself and they would not notice. that’s the general gym, not ventured into the weights section just yet.


    • It’s true Sarah, and I’m glad you noticed :). It’s true for the weights area as well. Keep reading and let’s get you into the weights. It will help you lose weight faster.


  10. The gym can be very intimidating, especially for a woman – the weight room being the scariest. My wife tells me it’s because there are rarely any females in the free weight section, so just that alone makes her feel like an outsider. And then people are always watching. I think you just have to put some headphones in your ear and zone out. Once I get going, I have no idea what’s going on around me.

    The biggest thing that helps her is going with someone else – usually me. But I think the concept can apply with others. Bring a workout partner. There is always safety in numbers.


    • Good idea to have a partner. Honestly, this can help a great deal. I know in the past when I wanted to try a different machine or routine at the gym, I did it when I was with a partner. If we both screw up it’s fun! 😉


  11. Love that you said this: “There’s an attitude you get after doing scary things regularly that enables you to do more scary things.”

    I think a little fake-it-till-you-make-it is in order. If we go into a situation with a posture and a facial expression that says “I’m going to enjoy this,” our chances of having a great time rise exponentially.

    And if it’s any consolation to gym newbies, any new gym always makes me a little anxious, just because I don’t know where everything is. And that’s after almost 30 years of gym membership. The truth is, nobody’s paying any attention to me, and that’s a liberating thought.


    • I have to agree that faking it is the best recourse when you’re scared in ANY situation. I tell my daughter that all the time. Thanks for your perspective Mary, coming from such a weights veteran it’s interesting indeed.


  12. What I find so interesting, reading through the comments as well as the post itself, is the sharing of individuals’ own experiences, so you get that kind of “Oh, so it’s not just me, then…” kind of virtual support.


  13. Hmm, I never thought of the mirrors that way – as a negative. I like mirrors so I can focus on form – and they’re good for making angry faces at yourself to make you push through that last rep. ;P

    I know plenty of people who won’t go to the gym until they’re “ready” (read: in shape). It’s like cleaning your house before the cleaning lady comes.


    • Ha! I love it. And you’re so right about not going til you’re ready. Years ago I purposely learned to lift in my living room before joining a gym. “Weight Lifting for Dummies” anyone? 🙂


  14. How right you are! I just joined a gym on Saturday – I joined Snap Fitness which is a run-of-the-mill 24 hour gyms that doesn’t require a contract. I used to be quite thin, in fact, at 5 foot tall I didn’t weigh over 100 lbs until after high school and still didn’t weigh over 125 until I hit my late 20’s and wow…something happened. Now – at 33 – I weigh 161, and a month ago I weighed 167. This isn’t who I want to be. I don’t want to be somebody with a weight problem. I know that it’s up to ME to change. I’m lifting weights and training to run a 5k. I know that running isn’t the ultimate workout, but I needed a solid goal to work towards – and I work with a girl who runs half marathons…so it seemed like a good idea to aim for a 5k. I have right at 3 months until the 5k and I’m quite interested to see what I can accomplish in the mean time.

    I suppose I just wanted to introduce myself as a new reader…haha Sorry for the rambling!


    • Thanks so much for reading Amy! Love connecting with new readers :). Kudos for getting on it and taking responsibility for your health Amy. It does creep up and I see it all the time: people who say they were fit in high school or even a few years ago. You’re smart to be taking charge. If you get discouraged with half marathon training, try weights circuits or another form of cardio. Half marathons are super tough if you’re not already in shape… taking up running before you’ve lost weight puts you at increased risk of injury. No matter what, keep up the activity and watching your diet :


  15. “walking into a gym is scary” – It is scary indeed! Seeing all those well-trained people with nice bodies makes me feel even worse about me. I always get the feeling that they look at me and thing: “What the h*ll is this ugly fat person doing here?” 🙂 I know, I am stupid, but I rather go for a jog alone right now.


    • No, you’re not stupid Anna but it’s totally understandable if you feel dumb. I did too when I started lifting weights. I did it in the privacy of my living room until I felt more confident. I hope you give that a try… too many benefits to miss out on!


  16. I joined a local gym a number of years ago, and was in quite good shape, but the place was quite a posh and posy sort of establishment with a lot of media luvvies in designer lycra. I was being trained by the male trainer in the programme that had been devised for me, and was on a treadmill, when a female voice from the row behind said ‘Don’t let him bully you or intimidate you into doing things you don’t want to…’ The voice was vaguely familiar, and I turned round to find it was a famous UK TV comedienne, not renowned for her slim figure, but known for being quite outspoken and outrageous.

    It really made me laugh at the time, and also made me think – so when I found the rowing machine almost impossible to master, and felt ridiculously over-exposed doing the floor-work, I asked for the programme to be changed to something that felt more in keeping with what I could actually persist in.

    I agree that gyms generally are places where members concentrate on their own workouts and pay little or no attention to others – and I have never been into a weight room, so can’t comment on that.


    • Yay! I totally think that if a client doesn’t feel comfortable doing something she should tell her trainer. Though… the trainer’s job is to take you out of your comfort zone ;). I am glad to hear you don’t pay attention to those not paying attention to you. And get in the damn weight room woman!


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