Dealing With Gym Intimidation

People using weight machines in fitness center
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It's unfortunate, but plenty of people feel intimidated at the thought of joining a gym. Walking into a huge open room with hundreds of mysterious machines is tough and what's worse is that the members seem to be in great shape and know exactly what they're doing. It's not hard to see why so many people think they're too out of shape to join a gym.

The good news is that there are many choices for how and where you workout and each gym offers a different type of atmosphere. The trick is to find one that feels welcoming to you.

Why Gyms Can Be Intimidating

Navigating the gym can throw anyone for a loop, even experienced exercisers. It's normal to experience those fears when you join a gym and it's not hard to see why when you look at how some health clubs are set up.

  • Open spaces - If you're looking for privacy during workouts, joining a large gym may not be for you. In many health clubs, the workout areas are open with cardio machines lined up behind one another and weight machines sprawled out across the floor. Some group fitness rooms may be lined with windows so people can see in and some find this uncomfortable when just getting started with exercise.
  • Confusing machinery - Treadmills, bikes, elliptical trainers, balls, bands, weight machines...all that equipment can be very confusing if you've never used them before. The fear of looking stupid is something we all experience when trying new things and the overwhelming choices can add to that fear.
  • Aggressive salespeople - Working up the courage to visit a gym can be hard for some people and, if you're shy, an aggressive salesperson may intimidate you even more. Not all health clubs are like that, but many do put pressure on you to sign up. Many people find themselves signing over their firstborn without even being sure they want a membership at all.
  • Hardcore exercisers - Every gym has regulars and some can be a little intimidating if you make an honest mistake (like taking too long on a machine or not putting your weights back in the right place). Though you'll find most members are helpful and nice, not all gym-goers are patient with newcomers and it can be scary to navigate the gym with these types of people.
  • Comparing Yourself to Others - Though there are a wide variety of gym-goers, big and small, there are always going to be those people that seem to have "perfect bodies." Many newbies can be intimidated when they see this, not remembering that everybody starts off as a beginner at one point or another, and that comparing yourself to others isn't a fair thing to do.

Find the Right Gym for You

If you tend to be intimidated by gyms, but you still want a place you can work out, there are some other options out there for you. All it takes is a little time and research to find the right place for you.

Choosing Your Health Club

There are many factors to consider when choosing a health club, from location to membership fees and contracts. But none of that matters if it doesn't have the right kind of atmosphere.

When looking for a gym, you want to find a place where you feel comfortable and that might not always be at the nearest chain such as 24 Hour Fitness, Bally's, Gold's, or Lifetime Fitness. Although these types of gyms usually offer a wide range of services and classes, the large spaces and sometimes aggressive salespeople can make it uncomfortable for some. For more individualized and caring attention as well as a welcoming atmosphere, check out some of these ideas.


The YMCA is a non-profit community service organization focusing on family health and wellness. Though each one is different, most offer a relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff and a great place for families to exercise and play together. Check into your local YMCA to see what kinds of programs they have to offer, both for kids and adults.

Jewish Community Centers

The JCC is another family-friendly place offering everything from gym workouts to group fitness classes. Like the YMCA, they also offer plenty of camps and programs for kids as well as daycare services. And you don't have to be Jewish to join.

Local Recreation Centers

Many cities and towns have a Parks & Recreation Department offering fitness classes (for adults and kids), fitness centers, kids programs and more. These types of places are often casual and relaxed rather than 'hardcore' like some other types of gyms. You can often join fitness classes (like yoga or tai chi) without having to pay a gym membership and it's a great place to meet your neighbors without feeling like you're in a competitive atmosphere.

Check with your local parks department to find out what's available in your town.

Hospital-Based Gyms

Many hospitals now offer gym services, which is a great choice whether you have a medical condition or not. The staff at these types of gyms are usually very well-trained and, of course, you have access to medical advice if you need it.

Women-Only Clubs

These types of clubs (like Curves) usually offer 30-minute circuits that combine strength and aerobic training in one workout. Because they're women-only and no-frills, many women feel comfortable working out in this type of environment.

One drawback is that doing the same workout for too long can lead to weight loss plateaus and boredom.

The hydraulic machines preclude any weighted eccentric movements (the lowering of the weight). Although Curves claims this is safer and reduces injury, this actually means that muscles aren't being trained functionally. Muscles need to be able to handle the weight (whether it's with machines or picking up a child) through a full range of motion. Still, this can be a great place for beginners, especially if you stay month-to-month.

Personal Training Studios

Many personal training studios are small and a bit more homey than big gyms. You may find it more comfortable to work out in this type of environment and you may even be able to schedule private sessions with a trainer. The only downside is that you usually can't use it as you would a gym (i.e., showing up at any time for a workout) but only for individual sessions with your trainer.

Build Your Confidence at the Gym

If you decide to join a gym, there are some things you can do to make the experience easier and more enjoyable:

  • Set up an orientation. Many gyms offer new member orientations where a trainer shows you around and teaches you how to use the machines. This service is usually free and once you know how the machines work, you'll feel much more comfortable about showing up for your workouts.
  • Hire a personal trainer. A personal trainer can set you up with a full workout based on your goals. He or she can also educate you on good form, teach you how to use the machines and be your support as you learn new activities.
  • Workout with a buddy. It's always easier to do something with support and walking into a gym is much easier with a friend along. Find a friend or relative with similar goals to join a gym with you, if you can.
  • Choose less busy hours. Most gyms have busy times such as early morning, lunchtime, and after work. To avoid the crowds, you can schedule your workouts for mid-afternoon or even late at night, if that works for you.

It's important to know that the gym isn't for everyone, so you shouldn't feel you have to join one to get a great workout. You can easily set up your own home gym, use workout videos or take your workouts outside. You can also hire in-home personal trainers to get one-on-one instruction without the distraction of other exercisers.

There are many options out there to fit your needs, so take some time to find the most comfortable and supportive workout environment for you.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."