There was a time when I struggled to make fitness a consistent part of my life. I had a repertoire of excuses that seemed totally legit at the time: I was too busy, I had to work late, I was too tired, or fitness was just too expensive.
I now realize that my “reasons” for avoiding fitness were just a front and a mask that concealed my own fear of fitness.
But what was I afraid of? And why is engaging in fitness so scary for some of us?
I had fear of judgment. None of the gym advertising or websites I visited showed anyone who looked like me. To me, this sent a subconscious message that I wasn’t really invited and I felt I would be judged. I thought I needed to be thinner or fitter before I was deemed worthy enough to enter to the gym. What the hell?
I had fear of failure. At the time there were seldom women of my size represented in fitness mediums and I didn’t have any role models who looked like me, so how could I truly know that someone of my size was actually succeeding at achieving their athletic greatness?
It left an element of the unknown, so subconsciously I avoided it with my go-to excuses. What I didn’t realize is that I was amongst thousands of women who felt the same way. Gym anxiety is real.
Sport England did an extensive study of women for the popular fitness campaign This Girl Can. Their findings revealed a huge difference in the number of men and women playing sport. And it’s wasn’t because females didn’t want to get active. Millions of women and girls were afraid to exercise because of fear of judgement.
My excuses served a purpose: They protected me from stepping outside of my comfort zone. But what they really kept me from was living to my highest potential.
Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve learned strategies for managing my fear and I’ve coached thousands of women to do the same. If you relate to any of this, it’s time to kick fear to the curb and get in the game. So, are you ready?
1. The Know Before You Go Strategy
Being prepared isn’t just for the Girl Scouts. Implementing the know before you go strategy can level fear to a mere flicker. I recommend doing some in-depth research so you know what to expect before attending a gym or fitness class. I’d even go as far as touring the facility, viewing where you will be working out, and meeting the trainers. The more familiar you can be before you start, the better.
2. The Fitness Fit Strategy
Finding fitness that fits your ability, needs and your version of health is vital to reducing fear. If you have never exercised, or you haven’t exercised for 20 years, intimidating or intense fitness programs will only amp up the fear factor. If you are smothered with too much fear before you even start, it becomes difficult to sustain and people often quit. Start slowly, allow yourself to get (re)acquainted with exercise, build your confidence and then move on to more. This is all about fear management and biting off what is palatable, step by step. Rather than jumping into a high-intensity interval training class (HIIT), maybe you want to start with walking or jogging in the park, or using the stationary bike at the gym and doing stretches and bodyweight work on the mat.
3. The Breathing Strategy
Even now, I still have fitness fear. I can remember waiting to get into the pool at a triathlon and my heart was racing, my fear amplified. I didn’t have a great swim because my heart rate was too high and I went out of the gate too fast. I now implement breathing to combat the pre-race jitters. Find a quiet corner, close your eyes and just breathe. Deep breaths in through nose, out through the mouth until you feel calmer.
4. The Jive With Your Tribe Strategy
When I first started running I was terrified to join a run group, but when I arrived on the first night my run leader was a plus-size woman with a body type just like mine. Everyone in the group was a beginner runner, just like me and I immediately felt like I belonged. Their likeness to me took my fear from a 10 to 3 in a quick second. If you see a fitness group or class that resonates with you, find out more—finding your tribe truly changes everything!
5. The Feel It and Do It Anyway Strategy
When we are trying something new there will likely be some degree of fear. I now see fear as a part of the athletic process and I no longer allow it to rule my life. Someone once told me that fear is just energy very similar to excitement and that helped me diminish its power. We must remember that our instinctual fight or flight reactions to danger are ingrained in us because in ancient times our lives were often at risk. However, I am happy to report that when I’ve joined a gym or entered a race I didn’t die or combust. Remember, part of athleticism is feeling the fear, managing it, and doing it anyway. Harness that energy and use it in your workout!
6. The Positive Mind Strategy
Often fear can erupt when we’re not feeling worthy and sometimes we have to fake it till we make it. I recommend daily mantras. Similar to physical training, mental training is key for dissipating fear. Maybe you’ve heard the saying “If you think you can, you can.” When we have a strong sense of self-efficacy, our fear is lessened greatly. Here are some of my go-to mantras:
I am an athlete.
My body will do whatever I train it to do.
I am strong and capable of anything I put my mind to.
Find some phrases that feel authentic to you and chant them till the cows come home!
7. The Expectation Strategy
If you have been away from fitness for a long time, I would recommend having very little expectations around physical performance at first. Disregard what you used to do in high school, or even two years ago, and embrace where you are today. If you enter the game with high expectations it beckons our fear of failure and sometimes we’re defeated before we have even started. Remember, take it slow and go!
It takes great bravery to step forward and take control of your health. I always ask my clients, What is the worst thing that can happen? You might have to walk during the run, you might have to stop and catch your breath or you might have to sit down for a moment. But I can assure you, you won’t explode or combust during fitness. Just knowing that can give you the power to bust through your fear, rock it out, and do it anyway!