Going to the Gym: High School Revisited

One of the most intimidating experiences for most of us is walking into the gym for the first time. Is there any other experience that can send you right back to high school faster? You walk in and right away, it feels like everyone is looking at you. Since you’re new at the gym, you’re probably not going to be feeling secure with the equipment or with your work out. In short, you’re that awkward geeky freshman again surrounded by cool confident seniors who know what’s what.

As your parents and counselors reminded you back then, even seniors were freshmen once! But telling yourself that is one thing and being confident in new surroundings is something else. It’s seems like a silly thing: “it feels awkward! I feel dorky! I don’t know what I’m doing!” But this is one of the biggest obstacles people have when it comes to going to the gym. Because we feel awkward and uncomfortable, we make excuses to avoid it, so we pay for the membership and don’t go. We mean to go, but we keep coming up with reasons to avoid the awkwardness. Not only are we wasting our money, we’re wasting opportunities to improve our health. Why? Because we don’t want to be embarrassed! The awkwardness is robbing us of our money and our chance to be healthier.

We’ve coined a new word for this awkward feeling: gymtimidation. It’s actually part of the slogan for Planet Fitness (No Gymtimidation).  I used to belong to PF and it was a very comfortable atmosphere. Most of the people I saw in my local PF were a little out of shape and wearing old sweats (much more my speed). If it weren’t for the fact that it had no pool, I would probably still be a member and I wasn’t as circumspect when I chose my new gym. The atmosphere was less important than my biggest concern: it had a pool. I was willing to put up with the gymtimidation but I started noticing a few things about the people I see at my current gym (In-Shape City), and honestly, they’re kind of amusing. Just like in high school, a lot of the people are more interested in how they look and who’s looking at them than they are in actually working out. Is fixing your hair really what you’re worried about before you exercise? Other than making sure my hair is pulled back and out of my way, I don’t care what it looks like. Ditto makeup. I definitely don’t reapply anything before getting in the pool or using the equipment.  I’m going to be wet and/ or sweaty: do I really want my eye shadow, eyeliner, makeup, etc running down my face?

There are a lot of men and women who spend a lot of time sitting around at the gym, focused on their phones and there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time making sure their workout clothes are stylish, neat and showing off their best atributes. They look more like they spent time getting ready for a date rather than getting ready to exercise and they seem to wander around the gym a lot not-exercising. (I can see a lot from the pool!)

I’m not being judgemental: they pay for their membership so they can use the gym however they want. But you can see the ones who come to work out: they may also have “cool” workout clothes, but they are the ones actually using the equipment and they are the ones who leave (or head for the locker room) looking rumpled and sweaty, usually wiping their face with a towel.  They are the ones moving from station to station in the circuit training or waiting for my water aerobics class to finish so they can swim their laps.  They are the ones who aren’t looking around to see who’s looking at them: they’re looking for the next piece of equipment they are going to use!  They are focused on their fitness, not everyone else. One of the best t-shirts I saw at the gym was on a young woman helping out a friend use a piece of equipment; it said “Gym hair don’t care.”  That phrase seemed to sum up her and her friend’s attitude: they didn’t care who was looking at them.

This is the attitude we need to work on if we do feel awkward at the gym.  We’ve paid our dues (literally) and we are just as entitled to use the facility as anyone else. Confidence, like everything else, gets better with practice.  If you aren’t confident with the equipment, ask one of the trainers to show it to you. You pay for their services and it’s to their advantage that you use the equipment safely.  Especially since the more you use it, the more you come, the longer you stay a member and the more you refer others to their gym.  (Being an unhelpful unfriendly place is not going to boost their ratings on Yelp!)  So, if you have a question, ask someone.  Most gyms have a website (or an app) so spend a little time both at the gym and online.  Classes have their pros and cons.  There’s not a lot of individual attention from the instructor, but then you also have the opportunity to blend in with the crowd.  Sometimes watching others can boost your confidence: you can get some pointers on how the exercises are done and there’s usually a little reassurance that you aren’t the only ‘newbie’ in the class.  If you are doing circuit training or another individual workout, it may be helpful to make note of the times when the gym is less crowded so there’s less competition for the equipment and fewer of those non-exercisers who might want to giggle at your rumpled sweats.

Clothing is also something to consider.  While it’s nice to have workout clothes that match (I’ve got a couple of outfits that do), the most important thing is that you’re comfortable.  You need to be able to move freely and hopefully, the clothes breathe so you can cool down and not get overheated.  My outfits match because I bought the tops and pants at the same time so, why not get a matching set?  They breathe and fit well- not too tight but not too loose so I trip.  When I leave my water aerobics class, I merely put on some dry clothes over my bathing suit since I live nearby and would rather shower at home. The clothes I put on are an old t shirt with a frayed collar and an old pair of sweats that have a safety pin permanently attached because they are too big for me now.  Now that it’s colder, I also put on a worn out hoodie with a hole in one sleeve.  As you can see, I don’t care that I don’t look cool (or maybe look a little homeless) because I’m there to get in my workout and go home.  I don’t hang around the gym to see who’s looking at me or who I might be ‘looking at.’ Unless I’m chatting with a friend from my class, I get in the pool, do my workout and then go home.  I would never work out in my old pool cover-ups because they don’t fit well enough for that but that is the only reason. I don’t want my worn out t shirt or sweats getting caught in the equipment which is why I invested in some work out clothes.

You remember when you were in high school and your parents told you that you need to learn to stand up for yourself? Ditto what mom and dad said! You own that gym. You are a paying member and the staff are your staff, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or ask questions. One of the issues that comes up occasionally in my water aerobics class is non participants trying to use the pool when class is in session.  Sometimes this is a problem because our class can be a bit large and sometimes we use the entire pool.  Our trainer is not shy about telling people who are getting in our way of working out that they need to exit the pool area until class is over at 6:30 p.m. But on at least one occasion, we had a less confident (code for b*tchy) trainer subbing in and the group of young people in the corner, while staying out of our way, were getting so loud we couldn’t hear the trainer’s instructions.  After she had to repeat herself louder and hearing others grumbling about the loud kids, the teacher in me took over and in my loudest ‘teacher voice,’ I told the kids to “keep it down over there!” and they did.  I wasn’t embarrassed about it (I was more embarrassed for our sub who was not much older than the kids).  It’s my time they were messing with.  I pay to use the gym and take this class so, knock it off, guys!

The same holds for the trainer.  It is not unusual to have a substitute trainer for our class and one of the most recent trainers was an enthusiastic young woman who was very fit and very strong.  (By the end of the session, most of us were dying to ask her when she left the Corps or if she was still a reservist!) Generally, most of us like having the occasional sub since it gives us an opportunity to try something a little different, but some of the exercises she wanted us to do were frankly out of our league.  One of them was a ‘pool-side plank’ in which we swim to the side and hoist ourselves out of the pool and hold ourselves there for 20-30 seconds.  It doesn’t sound like a long time or a difficult move, but as one of my classmates mumbled “if I could do that, I wouldn’t be in this class!” It was only one of the exercises our class had trouble with, and we were not shy about letting her know what we couldn’t do and what we were willing to try.  Most of us in this class are retired and have been doing these classes for a few years (I’m still considered a bit of a newbie).  Being shy about voicing our opinions is a rarity for us.

Thinking back to when we were those awkward scared to death freshmen, did we ever stop to consider just how those seniors grew to be so cool and confident? (I know I didn’t!)  It came through practice and familiarity.  By the end of their freshman year, they knew which teachers were hard-nosed, which could be snowed, where the best tables were in the cafeteria and where to sit in the auditorium if you didn’t want to be seen.  In short, they learned the ins and outs of the school because they were there everyday.  Unlike going to the gym, school is not exactly optional (if you want an education, at least) and it’s in showing up regularly that we learn how to use the equipment, when the gym is super-crowded and which trainers are the most helpful.  We have to put in the hours to become the ‘cool seniors’ and like being a freshman, there might be a little bit of growing pains.  The trick really is in the attitude. If your focus is on how you don’t fit in and you worry more about the cool kids liking you rather than just being yourself and working on getting good grades, you are going to have a tough time in high school.  It’s a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. Just like high school, you can make friends and develop healthy habits that will last you a lifetime (and no one will give you a wedgie in the locker room!)

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