Gym-Anxiety: How common is it, and how can we combat it?
It's well known that exercise is a great way to relieve stress, build strength and stamina and improve our overall wellbeing. However, heading into a gym can have the opposite effect for some, causing a great deal of stress and anxiety for those who aren’t familiar with the environment or don’t feel comfortable exercising in a more public workout setting.
By analysing Google Search Trend data, we learnt that searches relating to “gym confidence” are up 1,600% year-on-year whilst “getting over gym anxiety” has risen by 300% YOY. We were keen to find out more.
We polled 2,000 UK adults to see just how many people experience gym-related anxiety; examining the main causes of gym-timidation, how attitudes differ between men and women, and whether some women would actually prefer to exercise in female-only or mixed gyms. Following this we analysed Google listings to find the most female-friendly workout cities in the UK.
How do Brits feel about hitting the gym?
According to our study over a quarter of women (28%) feel anxious in a gym environment, and almost 61% would prefer to work out in a female-only space. In contrast, this was found to be less of an issue for men, as just 16% stated that they felt intimidated by public workout spaces.
Just seven percent of women surveyed said they feel totally comfortable in any gym setting. This number was just over double for their men (15%). A lack of knowledge around exercises and form (26%), an overall sense of being uncomfortable (26%) and feeling as though they’re being stared at by other people (22%) were top causes of gym-timidation for women.
For men, the standout reasons for nervousness in the gym included generally feeling uncomfortable in that type of surrounding (19%), finding the gym equipment intimidating (17%), and a lack of knowledge when it came to exercises and form (16%).
It’s clear that the gym can be a source of discomfort for many people. However, this looks to be a more prevalent issue amongst women, as the number of women admitting to feeling anxiety in the gym was higher than the men surveyed. One in ten women (10%) disclosed that going to a workout space actually has the opposite effect, causing them to feel stressed out (10%), with seven percent saying they actually feel worse about themselves afterwards.
When it comes to what we’re wearing to the gym, this is another cause of anxiety, again particularly amongst women. Twice as many women than men (20% vs 10%) said they feel self-conscious wearing their gym clothes, adding to their lack of confidence in this environment. A further 15% of women confided that they don’t believe they look good in gym clothing, whilst again, this was a worry for fewer men (10%).
Google searches in the UK have increased by 189% in the last three months for the term “flattering gym leggings”. And they’re also up 53% when compared to this time last year too.
Where is the most female-friendly work out city?
When asked about their feelings on female-only gyms, more than a quarter (29%) of UK women admitted that they would prefer to go to a gym that is just for women, while 13% would prefer to go to a mixed gym that had a specific work out area just for women. A fifth (21%) stated that didn’t have a preference. A fifth of the UK women (19%) we surveyed said they were already a member of a female-only gym, or a gym that boasted a female-only space and enjoyed working out there.
Based on this enthusiasm for women-only gyms, we went on to analyse the number of listings on Google for “women's gyms” and “gyms with women's only areas”, situated within a 3-mile radius of major UK city centers (10 miles for London). We then compared this with the female population in each city. Boasting eight gyms offering female only exercise options, Nottingham was crowned the most female-friendly city when it comes to dedicated workout spaces.
Overall, in Nottingham there is currently one female-only gym per 16,466 women within the city. This was closely followed by Liverpool (one gym for 40.6k women), Cardiff (one for 49.5k women), Norwich (one for 58.4k women), and Bristol (one for 61.9k women). Whilst these cities claiming places at the top of the table, the number of women currently having to share a suitable space to meet their needs is substantial, with extremely limited options available despite the clear interest from those wishing to make use of them.
In total, across the 15 major UK cities analysed, there were just 73 female-only gyms, or workout spaces with female-only areas.
Number of female residents per women's only gym or workout space'
No gyms within 3 miles of city centre
At the opposite end of the scale, Southampton was found to be the UK city offering the least female-friendly workout spaces, with no gyms just for women within three miles of the city centre - the nearest being five miles out. Glasgow (one gym for 269k women), Sheffield (one for 237k women), and Edinburgh (one for 227k women) also had minimal options available.
Despite having no centrally located female only gyms, or gyms that boast a female only area, almost half of women surveyed from Southampton (49%) said they would be interested in a gym that catered to this.
What is gym anxiety?
We spoke to Emily Servante, Personal Trainer and Global Trainer Education Manager at Ultimate Performance about why we suffer from self-consciousness in the gym and how we can combat this.
She said: “Gymtimidation describes a fear of exercising at the gym or working out in front of other people. Far more than simply a media buzzword, this phenomenon presents a significant barrier to exercise. While such fears stem from various sources, common causes of gym-anxiety include, feeling body conscious, worrying about exercising in front of others, and pressure from social media expectations.
It’s important to remember that everyone started exactly where you are now. One of the biggest elements of improving the gym is skill acquisition, which comes with repetition of effort. The more consistently you train, the faster you’ll start to see results from your hard work and feel more confident in your environment. Your fitness journey is unique, so try not to fall into the trap of comparing yours to somebody else’s.
While there are several perfectly understandable reasons that women struggle with when it comes to fear of working out, there are a whole host of reasons why you shouldn’t let gym anxiety get the better of you. Regular exercise and weight training have extensive beneficial effects, including lower disease risk, improved mental health and cognition, and increased life quality and duration.”
How to beat gym-anxiety
Here are Emily's top tips on how to beat gym anxiety in 2022 and beyond.
1. Have a solid plan
Emily says: “There’s nothing like a concrete goal to focus your attention on, so set aside some time to set a SMART goal that breaks down your vision into manageable chunks. If you know exactly what, why, when, and how to perform each exercise, you’ll feel far more confident stepping foot in the gym. If you’re not sure where to start, professional support is a great way to learn the ropes, maximise your return on investment and get it right from the start.”
2. Keep it simple
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when entering a gym, that’s why Emily suggests focusing on mastering basic exercises before progressing to more advanced movements. This can help you build confidence and belief in your abilities.
If you’re worried about injuring yourself when weight training, make sure that you focus on performing each movement with control and take adequate rest periods between exercises.
3. Try to focus on yourself
If you feel as though people are watching you, try to remember that most people are more concerned with themselves than what you’re doing. “While it’s tempting to dwell on other people’s opinions, try to divert your focus to what you can control: your goals.”
4. Invest in new gym gear
When it comes to feeling self-conscious in our skin, Emily advises that, “It’s understandable that you may feel uncomfortable in the gym when you aren’t 100% happy in your skin. However, the only way to improve your body confidence is by taking the plunge. Don’t underestimate the power of some new workout gear when it comes to boosting your confidence and unleashing your inner superwoman.”
Picking gym wear that makes you feel great
Whilst we sadly can’t take away all of your gym-related anxieties, (we think you’re fabulous by the way) we can share our expertise when it comes to picking sport and activewear that makes you look and feel great!
When choosing your gym outfit, it’s important to pick something that you feel good in and that offers you the level of support you need.
For instance, if you’re looking to do yoga, your clothing will be different; yoga clothing is more comfortable and has more stretch than conventional sportswear. Your sports bras will have no fastenings on the back, like our The Comfort Sports Bra, and t-shirts will lie against the body to enable you to stretch freely, without discomfort.
However, if you’re looking at more intense exercise, you’ll need a more supportive bra. Your sports bra should be breathable, and quick drying. A well-fitting bra should sit comfortably and shouldn’t move when you raise your arms. An ill-fitting bra that is not offering you enough support may hinder your ability to perform your exercises and make you feel less supported and subsequently less confident in the gym.
If your focus is on high intensity exercise such as cardio or HIIT we’d recommend choosing a Level 3 sports bra, such as The Pro Sports Bra, that offers maximum support, your sports bra should absorb your movements and stay in place while you’re exercising. A high-compression sports bra is a great investment for those who have a bigger bust, helping support your chest, preventing back pain and encouraging better posture.
Those with larger chests will naturally need a more supportive sports bra than others, much like getting to know your bra size for day-to-day wear, you can use size calculators to find the best sports bra for your breast size and the level of movement you’re planning on doing in the gym.
When it comes to bottoms, high waisted leggings, such as our Make Me Zen Leggings are the perfect option for anyone who feels anxious about having their midriff uncovered, or anyone who wants to appear taller. If you’re looking to blend in, then opting for dark block colours over patterns or bold colours can be a way to draw less attention to yourself (and, black always looks chic in our opinion!).
It’s important to feel comfortable and supported when exercising. Investing in sportswear that you love and that makes you feel good doesn’t need to break the bank but can be a great way to boost your confidence when it comes to exercising.
Remember you have a right to be there
If you don’t have a female-only gym space nearby and feel nervous in some of your gym’s areas, remember that you have a right to the space just as much as anyone else.
Emily added: “A common cause of intimidation is that there are often cultural perceptions that women don’t belong in the weights area. However, resistance training is a highly effective and beneficial tool for improving health, fitness, and mental well-being, regardless of your gender or age. So, next time you feel like you don’t ‘belong’ in the weights area, try to remember that you have just as much right to be in there as anyone else.”
Our survey data showed that almost of half of the women surveyed (49%) had worries when it came to both free weights and the weights-based machines when visiting the gym. However, it seems that despite this nervousness around equipment, Google Search Trend data shows that UK searches for “women’s weight training” had increased by 81% across the past three months alone, whilst “weightlifting routine for women” had risen by a staggering 350% over the past three months, with an increase in searches of 83% YOY, highlighting that women are eager to use weights, but often feel scared to do so within a gym environment.
It’s clear to see that while going to the gym is something that can be great for us on multiple levels, it can also be a huge source of anxiety and worry for others, with many feeling intimidated and self-conscious.
A great place to start when it comes to feeling more confident is by investing in some supportive activewear that makes you look and feel more you – you don’t have to spend a fortune either, by shopping around you’ll find there really is something to suit every taste, style and budget.
And, whilst some may feel more comfortable in a crop top or shorts, for others, bringing a loose fit t-shirt to wear over your sports bra, or opting for a higher waisted pair of leggings can make the world of difference when it comes to gym-confidence.
As Emily puts it, “It’s easy to feel put off from going if you don’t feel in peak condition, regular exercise is one of the best investments you can make in your long-term physical and mental health.
From the newest trainee to the most seasoned gym junkie, everyone is there for one reason: to improve themselves. Unless you’ve been advised against exercising by your doctor, the best way to improve your health is to start moving. You don’t have to be fit to start; you just have to start.”