How to Overcome Your Fears of Exercise

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

There's been much made of America's weight problem over the past few years and much discussion of why we're so fat. One obvious reason 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, but that's probably one of the things they say to themselves.

While some of us are lazy at times, one reason we don't exercise isn't laziness but a feeling of dread at the thought of exercise. 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?

Tips for Overcoming a Fear of Exercise

Give these tips a try to help ease any exercise-related fears or concerns you may have.

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. In fact, a beginner may feel so many tweaks and twangs, it may feel like everything is pulling, tearing, or falling apart.

  • 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, the first way to hurt yourself is by lifting too much weight and/or using bad form/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, my opinion on that is to skip it. You're better off doing a more specific warm-up. If you're walking, start off with a moderate walk. If you're running, start off 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 when you get stronger. For example, if you can only walk for 10 minutes, start there and increase your time each week.

Fear of Looking Like an Idiot

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 like an idiot when you can't figure out how a machine works 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.

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.

Ask a gym employee or trainer for help or ask a fellow exerciser (when he or she is resting between sets). Most people are happy to help.

Fear of Pain

Some avoid exercise fearing that there's nothing but pain in store for them. But exercise doesn't have to hurt. 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 (e.g., increased breathing, sweating and heart rate).

Exercise should not be painful. If it is, you should either slow down or stop. If you can't breathe during your cardio workout, you're working too hard (unless you're deliberately doing interval training).

When you first begin an exercise program, start slowly. In fact, 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 experience too much pain from overexertion or worse, from an injury, it will be harder to start again.

If you're experiencing 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, that's when you stop and see a doctor if it doesn't seem to be healing.

It's normal to feel some tweaks as your body adapts to exercise. When lifting weights, it's normal to 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.

Fear of Sweating

Some people get nervous about how much they sweat and some people actually avoid 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 sweating and/or body odor, there are some basic steps you can take like wearing sweat-wicking clothes (so the sweat leaves your body more freely) and avoiding foods (garlic, onions, and alcohol, for example) that may cause stronger odors.

Fear of Failure

Most 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, to make it through a workout, to stick to an exercise program, 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 right now, you need to do what you can handle.

If you set the bar too high, you also set yourself up for failure and 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 a risk can be all the success you need to keep you going.

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