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Heads and Tails: The two-sided nature of the gym environment

The beneficial effects of exercise on both mind and body have been public knowledge for years. Some of these benefits can be seen in previous InSPIre the Minds blogs by Professor Carmine Pariante, Dr Richard Simpson and Neuroscientist Juliette Giacobbe. However, as Juliette mentioned in her blog, exercise can also have negative impacts on mental health, many of which stem from social interaction. So, what happens when you factor the gym — an intense social environment- into this equation?

As a qualified personal trainer, and Psychiatric Research MSc student, I’m extremely passionate about the cross over between mental and physical health. When studying to be a personal trainer, I completed a module on barriers to exercise, some of which have been outlined on the website. For some psychological barriers, their presence can often be associated with the gym environment rather than the exercise itself. As a social species, it’s somewhat in our nature to worry what other people think and make comparisons with other people’s lives. So, when attending the gym, this can often be a mixing pot of many positive and negative emotions.

Our experience of these emotions are very much dependent on an exhaustive list of variable factors, including our personality traits, pre-existing anxieties or low self-esteem, whether we have any additional support (for example, gym buddies or personal trainers) and many more! The intention of this blog however is not to tell you what you will or will not experience, or that you will definitely experience anything I mention today. The aim is to simply shed light on the feelings people may have when they go to the gym, touching upon my own experiences from 8 years in the gym.

Gym anxiety versus comfort

In 2013 I started using the gym at my local health club. At just 15 years old I hated my body and felt a need to lose weight. With little confidence and low self-esteem, attending the gym wasn’t any easy task for me and for many years I experienced something now referred to as ‘gym anxiety.’

Gym anxiety is an umbrella term for the worries and concerns people have when attending the gym. Common anxieties include fear of people watching, of all equipment being used so wandering around aimlessly, of doing exercises incorrectly and not knowing how to use the equipment. Recently PureGym, one of the largest gym groups in the UK, shared an article by fear expert Dr. Kerr, who highlighted the social basis for gym anxiety and provided tips on how to deal with these difficulties. Some examples include, accepting your fears, making a plan and educating yourself. For many people beginning their fitness journey, or changing to a new gym, these anxieties can frequently occur.

However, the gym environment can also be a comforting and relaxing place for many people. The beneficial effects of exercise in stress alleviation have long been public knowledge, but the additional support of a gym community can somewhat amplify this.

For many people, exercising in a shared environment where support is available can be a comfort, particularly where they feel their own knowledge is lacking. The sharing of knowledge, and a collective goal to better oneself, can make the gym environment a reassuring place to be.

In my early gym days, the support I received from personal trainers when in the gym provided a safety net for the times I doubted my knowledge, which ultimately provided me with comfort. 5 years into my fitness journey I moved to a bodybuilding gym after finding a passion for heavy weightlifting and muscle gain. Here, I found a level of comfort in the atmosphere created by people with similar goals.

Self-comparison versus confidence

Although I have now managed to find comfort in support from the gym community, for a long portion of my journey, the gym amplified the difficulties I had with body-image and performance. I often made comparisons in the way I looked, the weight I lifted and the speed and length I could run, constantly wishing I could do more.

Given that the gym environment is a social space, it is common for people to feel pressured to look a certain way or perform at a certain level (The irony!). The very nature of human beings can often lead to self-comparison and dissatisfaction with oneself. Though only measured in male participants, group comparisons showed gym users had increased body dissatisfaction and eating pathology when compared to non-gym users. (Disclaimer: this does not mean you are going to develop disordered eating or body dissatisfaction if you attend the gym.) In women, 45% said they would be nervous in the gym if other gym goers were fitter than they were.

On the flip side, with the right support, the gym environment boosted my confidence more than exercise outside of this community ever could. Reassurance and guidance from others helped develop my knowledge and inadvertently increase the confidence I had in my training. Many people starting their fitness journey worry about their lack of knowledge and subsequently doing things incorrectly. In another article by PureGym almost 40% of people said they were afraid to show people they didn’t know what they were doing. As a result, most lack the confidence to begin their fitness journey and thus sharing of knowledge and reassurance in the gym environment can boost confidence.

Distraction versus motivation

Sometimes the gym environment can be a distracting and counter-productive place to be. There are many reasons why people can get distracted at the gym, including others trying to socialise with them, poor spatial awareness and dismissal of personal space, loud noises (such as grunting and slamming of weights) and getting bogged down with self- comparison.

When I was experiencing difficulty with self-comparison and body-image, the gym environment sometimes became a very distracting place to be and in fact deterred me from my goals. I was often so wrapped up in what other people were achieving that I couldn’t fully develop my own training.

If you find your mind wandering in the gym and your eyes focusing more on other people than what you’re actually doing… don’t worry, most of us have been there and done that! It can be difficult to focus on your own goals when other people are grinding away at different milestones.

However, sometimes being surrounded by others who are smashing their own milestones and pushing their own limits can be a good source of motivation for many people in their fitness journey. Working out with others can provide a sense of accountability and subsequent motivation that may often lack when embark on a fitness journey alone. As I became more confident in my own abilities, this was certainly the case for me. Attending a bodybuilding gym where others were lifting ridiculously heavy weights, the sheer atmosphere of no limits became a big source of motivation to hit heavier personal bests on my own lifts.

A note on individuality

We are all unique individuals — what works for one person may not work for another, and what one person experiences in the gym is not a guaranteed experience for another. Your journey is your own and only you can decide if the gym is the right place for you.

In summary

The gym environment can provide some beneficial additions to people’s fitness journeys, including a motivational atmosphere, sharing of knowledge and experience, and a sense of community and support. Overall, these factors can provide people with more comfort, confidence and motivation in their fitness journey.

However, we should give equal weight to the struggles some people experience when attending the gym, including gym anxieties, distractions and increased risk for self-comparison. Experience of these effects (or any others not listed) is very much individualistic and dependent on many other factors, so please do not take all of these as a given!


Header Image by Anna Tis on Pexels


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