By Emmalee Mauldin, Nicole Reiley and Ambur Wilkerson
Working out at the gym is a healthy way to relieve stress, but for some it can actually cause more stress than it relieves.
The name for this effect is “gymtimidation.”
Gymtimidation is when a person feels intimidated by the gym atmosphere and sometimes-driven culture. It can affect everyone from the everyday gym-goer to the first-time visitor, no matter one’s weight, shape, size or age. And advice on dealing with the issue is proliferating.
Jake Jacobs is director of the Anxiety Research Group in the psychology department at the University of Arizona. He explained that people can feel gymtimidation simply because of the idea of competition that might be sensed in the gym.
“When somebody goes out and estimates that they’re losing in a competition (they feel) anxiety, fear, stress,” Jacobs said. “And what that does it that motivates them to push a little bit harder. So it seems to be an adaptive response.”
Such responses help humans form friendships and relationships through cooperation and competition.
Gymtimidation may present itself in physical manifestations, along with the mental anxiety, fear and stress.
“Physical manifestations typically start where your diaphragm freezes up,” Jacobs said. “Your hands start to tremble. Your muscles will begin to tense. Perspiration will break out. Your heart rate will go up. You’ll begin to tighten up, and you’ll feel tingle in your lips and extremities; first your hands will get cold, but then tingling will set in.”
These can be symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks, but they happen in only the most extreme cases of gymtimidation. Jacobs explained that in extreme cases of gymtimidation, the body can go into fight, flight, or freeze modes.
“It’s kind of a vicious cycle, so the more you focus on it, it gets worse and worse and worse,” Jacobs said.
Two active members at Orangetheory Fitness in Tucson, Haille Saal and Emily Gatti, explained their thoughts on gymtimidation, as well as their personal relationship when it come to going to the gym.
Although neither has fully experienced the complete apprehension of feeling intimidated prior to going to the gym, they both say they have felt uneasy in certain situations.
“I never necessarily was intimidated by the people who were at the gym or at places like Orangetheory, but I was slightly intimidated by the structure of this class,” Saal said. “Once I became more of a local here all of my ‘gymtimidation’ was fully gone and I’ve felt super comfortable since.”
Orangetheory member Emily Gatti said she has experienced gymtimidation at places other than Orangetheory.
“I am not a fan of working out at the campus Recreation Center because I am not fully comfortable there, so I guess I have gymtimidation at the Rec,” Gatti said.
She suggested ways to cope.
“I think gymtimidation can be more avoidable when you are working out with a friend or in a group class like Orangetheory because you feel more motivated,” Gatti said. “Also, because everyone who is at these classes isn’t paying attention to what you are doing and are focusing on themselves.”
Lisa MacDonald, the faculty adviser for the Body Positive Initiative on campus, is empathetic.
“I am familiar with this concept as many of the students I encounter through counseling, community outreach and in classes talk about not feeling comfortable in the gym setting,” MacDonald said. She describes Body Positive as “a student-run program with the goal of enhancing positive body image and self esteem through community outreach/programming.”
MacDonald said the university Rec Center is on board with the idea that not everyone is comfortable in the gym, even though they want to be there.
“They have expressed interested in body-positive programming at the Rec and they have started a gym-buddy program where they are pairing students together so they can work out together,” MacDonald said.
“I feel like the Rec Center is working their way towards increasing diversity and inclusivenesss. They have increased diversity in their staff, flyers, and courses and events they hold,” said said Chinwuwanuju Sampson, a student intern for the Body Positive. “They have also increased accessibility around the center and they currently house a lot of varying programs, such as Cooking on Campus, to bring in new people.”
Onieda Hudson, student coordinator for the Body Positive, said, “There are events that are put on monthly, targeted to different populations on the UA campus, but also towards the people they see come into the gym, but these events do not get many attendees” perhaps because the word has not gotten out effectively.
To overcome gymtimidation, Jacobs recommends basic coping strategies. These include breathing exercises and relaxing of muscles. Then it becomes a cognitive struggle — acknowledging that you’re not in competition with these people at the gym — and that you’re going to be okay. Everything and everyone can work out.
“You’re there to do your work and get out,” Jacobs said.