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Working around Social Anxiety at the Gym

Lately I have been remiss at writing articles and have reverted towards photo blogging instead of sharing personal experiences through daily blogging.  As I was talking to a strikingly catalytic friend on a morning pup walk, I realized I have been consumed with catching up after our move to Indiana to which I have almost omitted fitness blog postings.  Without physical fitness, one can not live a healthy whole life.  Hence, I wanted to write to you today expressing how I have been dealing with a new gym and working out with unfamiliar people while dealing with my social anxiety.

As many of you daily Genki Readers are already aware, I have dealt with social anxiety my entire life and continue to do so.  Thankfully I do work through my social phobia disorder with simple tricks in which I have learned throughout the years of being overweight in a foreign country.  If living in a foreign country is not hard enough, I lived in the size zero crazed country of Japan where the news media portrays all citizens to be naturally slender and healthy. (Which by the way is not true!)  It was not uncommon to meet someone in Japan and be asked “How much do you weigh?” and/or be told, “You need to lose weight.”  Thus said, I have become very accustomed to dealing with anxiety without medicine.

A gym is a bit unfamiliar territory for many however if you live in a location which the weather is not perfectly sunny everyday, it is necessary to have a gym membership.  It’s not 100% necessary but does help keep momentum in the severely cold days of winter or rainy days as we have had recently.  Here are my tips to enjoying a gym membership and reaping the benefits not only physically but mentally:

Tip #1:  It seems impossible now but the #1 tip I have to tell all of you living with this disorder is to take the plunge.  Don’t dip your toe in the water, take the full plunge off the deep-end.  It takes 30 days to get comfortable with a new lifestyle change say experts, so make out a workout plan for at least 30 days.  Promise yourself to stick to the plan no matter what! Include very specific information such the Elliptical for 30 minutes on Monday at an incline of 10 at 10 speed, weights on Tuesday on each specific machine, and so on.  Plan it all out and make yourself keep to your calendar, even if you have to push yourself to continue.  Make copies of your plan and post it in your house, in your car, on your bike or whatever place you will see it daily.

Tip #2:  You are not alone!  Everyone, even the most popular, slender, muscle laden gym bunnies all have fears of not comparing up to the others in the gym.  Your thoughts may be a bit more stretched but you have to realize others are going to the gym to get fit too, not everyone is there to watch you workout and criticize you.  Fake your confidence until you have it!  Whatever you do, always workout with a smile on your face, it’s a coping mechanism and others will not know your fears.

Tip #3:  Avoid Peak hours… Ours is less busy around the mid-morning and mid-afternoon just before or after meals.  The gym we are members of is mainly university professors and college students so it may be different at your gym.  But at ours, the general hours to be less busy are around 9-11am, 2-4pm, and 8-12pm.  If you want to be assured of the busiest hours, ask the front desk and they will certainly know the answer.  Non-peak hours makes it easier to get a machine and less people you will fear are starring at you.

Tip #4:  Take music with headphones, just in case at all times, on small personal device such as an iPod or cellular phone.  If you are feeling anxious, it is totally acceptable to listen to your own music and zone out.  Think motivational music playlists that you can switch up every few days.  Generally speaking most people use ear-buds, not the large over the ear types.  I would highly suggest this type as to not be overly sensitive about being seen wearing them.  Sometimes fitting in helps one feel more comfortable.  Be sure if you are going to be running around a track to purchase an arm strap so you do not have to carry your device, which can be uncomfortable and make you feel less confident.

Tip #5:  Learn how to use the machines ahead of time.  When you sign up for a gym, take a look at the names and machines available.  Then research them and see how to use them so you don’t feel such alike a “newbie”.  If you can’t find this information online, call ahead and find out.  Just state you want to learn about the gym and what machines they tend to have at this time.  Most gyms are brand loyal so there will generally be one type for all machines.  Additionally if you are thinking of doing free weights, try looking up a workout plan online to know exactly what you will be doing each day.  For weight-lifting I love this website.

Tip #6:  Hire a personal trainer or take a friend along for the first few times.  It’s easier in numbers.  While it is uncomfortable hiring a personal trainer, it may make things easier if you need to have a +1 with you the first few times.  Some gyms will give you a few free if you are new to the gym.  For me this makes me feel uncomfortable so I do my own but I know social anxiety works differently for others.  Ask your gym if they have any personal trainers on staff, then you will have an instant friend that you will know every time he/she is working.

Tip#7: Don’t overdo the workout gear.  People are going to know you’re new to working out if you come in a perfectly new, matching colored outfit all shiny and new.  Wear relaxed clothes, maybe mix and match your new workout clothes.  Try not to do anything too flashy…  If you have long hair, do put your hair up because others will stare if you are working out with a shield of hair around your face.

Tip#8:  Focus on your workout and not on others.  It’s so easy to fall into an anxiety attack when you start thinking about what others are going to be thinking about you when you working out.  Let me personally tell you, it is not comforting as a marathoner to have someone come on the treadmill right beside and have the runner watch my statistics.  Sure I might not look like an official marathoner but I can blow most people out of the water with endurance.  So can you with a little practice!  Take your own speed, don’t regulate your workout to match others.  Stick to the workout plan you created in #1.  So many times I have come across unsuspecting gym goers that jump on the treadmill next to me and increase his/her speed to match mine (or beat it).  Five minutes later that same person is panting and jumping off defeated.  Don’t worry about the speed of others because what matters is you are getting your workout as planned.  Five minutes of intensely fast paced run is less beneficial than a moderate to slow pace for 30 minutes.  Trust me, when you stick to your plan you will feel so very accomplished afterward compared to the competitive gym goer that worked out for only 5 minutes.

Tip#9:  Don’t workout in front of a mirror.  There’s nothing more nerve-racking than watching yourself workout and being the center of attention.  Leave the stations in front of the mirrors to those people that love to look at themselves.  The less visible you are to others, the better for your confidence.

Tip#10: Take a hand towel if your gym doesn’t offer them as a service.  I like to take a hand towel with me while exercising in new places.  This is partially due to sweating but also for social anxiety.  When I first started to go the a gym years back I found it was useful to fill in the gaps.  For instance, I used to be nervous being seen breathing heavily in front of others that were more fit.  (Which by the way, everyone breaths, you’re not alone.)  But I found as I would be on the treadmill/elliptical, breathing too hard due to pushing myself too hard or having a tiny panic attack, it was easy to turn off the treadmill or slow it down to “wipe” off my sweat.  Take a few minutes to cover your face with your hand towel and breath deep.  Since everyone sweats, it’s normal to stop the machine to “wipe away sweat”.  Give yourself a confidence talk during this wee break and then continue on – no one will notice.  Additionally you can also use your hand towel to wipe your hands if meeting someone new and a handshake is necessary.

Tip#11:  Start small and increase your involvement with others.  This is especially helpful when you are starting at a new gym and using the locker room.  I know when I was in school I did not have to deal with gym class and a locker room situation.  Our gym now is the first for me and I had to work myself up to using it.

My experiences in various gyms have been very positive.   Only on a few occasions have I ever come across negative or pushy members.  It’s important to remember that everyone in the gym is working on personal fitness (minus the few that go socially with friends), so no one is going to just stare and make fun of others.  Ironically I test my personal social skills a lot at the gym – sounds strange I know.

I’m the type of person that would rather talk in front of a few thousand people than talk in a small intimate meeting room.  So as I work on my fitness goals, I also work on talking to others in a small setting.  This means I skip my music player on occasions and just jump on a bike and do my thing.  Then as someone comes up to workout next to me, I tend to say small pleasantries such as “hello”, chitchat about the machines and/or even about something outside.  Just the other day I chatted with a newbie to the gym about a squirrel outside the window running around.  The other person was nervous and this small chatter not only helped my confidence but also hers.  Since then, I have seen her come back to the gym more regularly.  You can tell if someone is “all business” or wants to have a nice pleasant workout with someone else.  These small conversations can make a large difference you just have to jump outside your safety bubble and make small steps into this new world.

Gyms for me are generally a positive safety zone not only because working out can better your life but also because many people are in the same position as you.  So many people you come across at the gym have the same story as you – he/she was once heavier and shy, but after working out, confidence and health increased.  It’s really a win-win situation and if you think about it, it all starts with just 30 days of uncomfortably stepping out of your safety zone for a short period each day.

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