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Why Is Going To The Gym Scarier Than Holding A Spider?

woman doing weights

Following new findings that reveal 50% of non-gym goers admit to feeling scared of the gym, PureGym conducted a social study to find out what it was about the gym experience that instilled the most stress.

The scale of our gym-phobia

Speaking to non-gym members in the UK, the country’s largest gym provider discovered the scale of our gym fear, with half of the participants saying the gym was scary, and 20% admitting that they actually found it very scary.

The findings (full report here) compared gym anxiety to other common fears and helped to show that some people are so spooked by gym that one in four would rather choose to have an injection with a needle, or be alone in a room with a spider than go to the gym.

30% of millennials said they’d rather give up their phone for a day instead of going to the gym alone, and 1 in 4 (25%) women said they’d rather go on a rollercoaster than head to the gym.

What’s the scariest thing about the gym?

What people said they found most scary about the gym was put to the test in a novel experiment. Three non-gym members with a fear of the gym were monitored for heart rate and temperature changes whilst they braved a visit to the gym and were tasked with three non-physical challenges that non-gym goers said frightened them the most:

  1. Approaching the free weights area and selecting weights that they thought were the right size for them

  2. Setting up a treadmill for a 10-minute workout

  3. Asking a gym member for help with a specific machine

The resulting data showed:

  • Least stressful = visiting the free weights area: Although nearly a third (32%) of non-gym goers said the most intimidating area of the gym was the squat rack, and 64% said they didn’t know how heavy the weights they should use should be, this activity prompted the smallest increase in heart rate in all three case studies.

  • Pretty stressful = setting up a treadmill: Participants had a significant stress spike in both heart rate and temperature when setting up a treadmill for a run.Most stressful = asking for help: Asking a member of staff or fellow gym-goer for assistance proved the scariest for all three of the researchers, with a big surge in both temperature and heart rates.

(Note: The participants did not undergo any physical exertion, simply performing the set-up of a workout without actually performing the exercises to ensure readings were related to their emotions, and not their physical exertion).

How the participants felt

Roxy, 37: “My father and his relationship with the gym has definitely made going to the gym a ‘thing’ for me. Over the years, him pushing me towards going to the gym has made me resistant to actually going. Outside of that, the main thing that makes me nervous is the busy-ness of gyms especially at peak times. This really brings my feelings of low self-esteem to the fore, especially in situations such as the changing rooms, where I would find myself comparing my body to the other women. Put simply, the busier the gym is, the more intimidated I am.

Stepping foot inside the gym today has taken the power out of my fear. Being honest about that fear and going through the process; from getting dressed for the gym, to walking here, going through the doors and exploring its different areas has gotten me one step closer to joining.

What also helped today was being given a list of things to do, from going to the free weights section, to the treadmill and then leg extension. I wasn’t just let loose in here without an idea of what to do. I think gyms need to be explicit in what they offer for beginners, and an easy step-by-step workout card would go a long way. There’s a long way between just being a member of a gym, to having a personal trainer, so helping to fill that gap would really help.”

Robin, 44: “Before visiting the gym today, the thought of it would always remind me of P.E. at school. I was a ‘wimpy’ kid with asthma, and was always a ‘sick note’ when it came to P.E. I also went to quite a rough school, so found it a very intimidating environment. Every time I’ve thought of the gym, it brought me right back to those feelings of feeling out of place and worrying about who might be watching me.

However, after visiting today I’m admittedly such a novice, but its helped to remind me and make me realise that while I might be worrying about people watching me, no one actually is.

They’re here to get fit and anyone I did speak to was friendly. The image of the gym being like school has left me now, and I already feel more comfortable being inside one”.

Rebekah, 33:  “For me, it’s a fear of judgement when it comes to the gym. Because I’m a curvy girl, some people can make an assumption that you don’t know what you’re doing and I don’t like that.

It also takes me back to group sports at school, and being pushed into doing things I didn’t want to do. I always liked solo sports like gymnastics and rock climbing, and being forced into sports like netball put me off!

Being in a gym today helped me to realise just how anxious being here does actually make me feel, and face that head on. It’s been eye-opening and on the other side of it, maybe surprisingly, I would want to come again, and am considering getting a personal trainer!”

What makes the gym scary and how do we overcome our fears?

Stephen Rowe, Chief Marketing Officer at PureGym says “Our research revealed two principal causes of fear for people new to the world of gyms. The first is a general fear of the unknown and secondly, people worry that others may judge them as they don’t know what they’re doing which can lead to social anxiety.

To help first timers with their first visit, we’ve created a behind-the-scenes gym video tour which shows what a PureGym looks like from the inside, so they can get used the gym before they even leave the house. There is also an online treadmill guide on how to set-up a machine and three new workouts specifically for beginners to help a nervous member on their first visit. 

By arming new starters with a little more knowledge before they step into the gym, we hope to give them a bit more confidence and remove some of those anxiety barriers.”

Dr. Margee Kerr teaches and researches everything ‘fear’ related at the University of Pittsburgh. She even consults on deliberately fear-inducing rollercoaster and theme park attractions.

Dr. Kerr explains the reason why the gym is different to other healthy activity in our minds is because “Going to the gym is a social experience, meaning it carries all the potential gains that come with socialising, but also all of the fears and anxieties too.

“We, as humans, are constantly comparing ourselves to our peers, analysing how we’re similar, better, or worse. We also compare ourselves to our own expectations of what we think we should be capable of, our internal representation of our ‘best’ self.

Where we might be able to hide some of our vulnerabilities in the workplace or school, our weaknesses feel on full display in the gym, inciting intense feelings of vulnerability, of self-doubt, of fear.”

Dr. Kerr suggests the following tips for recognising and over-coming your gym anxieties:

Remind yourself that you are in control. Studies show a sense of control makes scary social events easier to tolerate and overcome. So, acknowledge, and frequently remind yourself, that you are the one choosing to take on this fear inducing situation. Your doctor, spouse, family member, coach, etc. didn’t make you go to the gym, YOU did. Knowing it’s your choice will empower you to embrace the challenge ahead.

Don’t ignore that you feel scared. Denying, or attempting to suppress your fears doesn’t work, in fact studies show it does the exact opposite. The more we try to NOT think of something the more importance we give it in our minds! Give yourself permission to feel scared, acknowledge the fear when it creeps in, welcome it and know that it’s OK to feel this way. And applaud yourself for feeling the fear but doing it anyway!

Educate yourself. Fear is all about the unknown, so you can do yourself a BIG favour and reduce a ton of anxiety by learning more about the gym before your first workout. Either research online, or book an induction to learn where the locker rooms, water fountains, and exits are located, and learn any important gym protocol like proper equipment use and class etiquette.

Thinking strategically will help you manage your fears, you have to know your territory before you make a move.

Read more of Dr. Kerr’s tips on coping with gym anxiety at