How to Overcome Your Fears of Exercise

Weight tower and treadmills in an empty gym
Viacheslav Peretiatko / Getty Images

There's been a lot made of America's weight problem over the past few years and much discussion of what lies behind this trend. One reason offered is that we don't move around enough. Some might call us lazy, but that explanation is a little too easy.

Some of the most accomplished and giving people are also people who don't exercise regularly. You wouldn't call them lazy, even if they don't work out.

While some of us are lazy at times, one of the reasons we don't exercise is more about fear. Physical exertion can be scary if you haven't done it in a long time and, for some people, moving the body to the point of increased heart rate, heavy breathing, and excessive sweating may seem as foreign as flying pigs.

So, what are you afraid of? The potential answers are numerous. Here are some options to consider, along with a few tips to help ease any exercise-related fears or concerns you may have.

Fear of Looking Foolish

Anything can happen when you exercise, especially when you take a lot of sweaty people and put them together with machines that have moving parts. It's also possible to feel foolish when you can't figure out how the machines work or aren't sure if you're doing an exercise correctly.

If you fall off a machine, drop a weight, or do something else that makes you want to crawl under the treadmill and die, there's only one option here: laugh...unless you really hurt yourself and then you should shout for help.

It's also beneficial to ask a gym employee or personal trainer for guidance or to reach out to a fellow exerciser (when he or she is resting between sets). Most people are happy to give you a few tips and help you out.

If you can't figure out how to use the machines, don't be afraid to ask for help. None of us are born knowing how to use machines and weights. We all have to start somewhere.

Fear of Pain

Some people avoid exercise fearing that there's nothing but pain in store for them. But exercise doesn't have to hurt.

In fact, exercise should not be painful. If it is, it's time to either slow down or stop. And if you can't breathe during your cardio workout, you're working too hard (unless you're deliberately doing interval training).

Now, when we say "hurt," we're talking about pain, not about the changes your body goes through when it starts to move faster than usual, such as increased breathing, sweating, and heart rate.

It's normal to feel some tweaks as your body adapts to exercise. When lifting weights, for instance, you'll probably feel a little burning in your muscles. As you get stronger, you'll get used to your body's response and be able to challenge yourself with heavier weights.

When you first begin an exercise program, start slowly. Some trainers even recommend that you do slightly less than you think you can do for the first couple of weeks. This helps you to build a habit without the risk of burn out.

If you have shin splints, side stitches, or other common side effects of beginning an exercise program, you may need to stop, take care of the problem, and start again tomorrow. If you feel any sharp pains in the joints, tearing in the muscles or ligaments, or anything else that doesn't feel normal, stop what you're doing and seek medical attention.

Fear of Injury

If you haven't exercised very much, you may not be able to tell the difference between the normal discomfort you feel from exercising for the first time (e.g., burning muscles or heavy breathing) and pain from an injury.

A beginner can feel so many tweaks and twangs, it may feel like everything is pulling, tearing, or falling apart. So, what if you're afraid that you'll injure yourself?

  • Tune in to what you're really feeling. It's inevitable that you'll feel something while you exercise, but it's important to separate genuine pain from normal sensations. Be aware of how you feel throughout your workout and do what you can to minimize your risk of injury.
  • Get the right shoes. Wearing the running shoes you bought 10 years ago probably isn't a great idea and can lead to all kinds of problems. Invest in a quality pair of shoes to give your body the support it needs.
  • Learn proper form. If you're lifting weights, one way to hurt yourself is by using bad form or posture during your exercises. If you don't know how to do the exercises, hire a personal trainer or get a gym employee to show you how the machines work and give you some basics.
  • Warm up before your workout. Though you might see people stretching before workouts, you're better off doing a more specific warm-up. If you're walking, start with a moderate walk. If you're running, start with a brisk walk. If you're lifting weights, do a little cardio first or try a warm-up set of each exercise with light weight. Jumping into your workout without warming up can lead to injuries and pain.
  • Work within your fitness level. Many injuries happen when you do too much too soon. Start with a light program and work your way up to more intense and frequent workouts. For example, if you can only walk for 10 minutes, start there and increase your time each week.

Fear of Sweating

Some people get nervous about how much they sweat, actually avoiding exercise because of it. There really is no "normal" when it comes to sweating. Sweating is simply your body's way of cooling you off and some of us sweat more than others.

If you're worried about excess sweating and/or body odor, there are some basic steps you can take. Wear sweat-wicking clothes (so the sweat leaves your body more freely) and avoid foods that may cause stronger odors, like garlic, onions, and alcohol.

Fear of Failure

Many of us are afraid to fail and, when it comes to exercise, that failure can be experienced in so many ways—a failure to lose weight, failure to make it through a workout, failure to stick to an exercise program, failure to do the right thing, etc.

The simplest way to deal with this fear is to set a goal you know you can reach. It's nice to have long-term goals to work toward but, for now, do what you can handle. If you set the bar too high, that could become an excuse to quit altogether.

Anytime you do something out of your comfort zone, you're taking a risk. But just the act of taking that risk can be all the success you need to keep you going.

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  1. Hales CM, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity and severe obesity among adults: United States, 2017–2018. NCHS Data Brief, no 360. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2020