I love the gym. I love the sense of order: plates lined up here, cardio machines there, dumbbells all in a row. I love the sound of treadmills buzzing, barbells racking, feet pounding. I even love that particular gym smell, a combo of spray cleaner, chalk, rubber and metal, clean towels, and hard-earned sweat.
I didn’t always love it, though. When I first got into exercising at college, the gym was a really intimidating place. It seemed like everyone felt so comfortable there. They knew how to work all the machines, how to do a dizzying array of exercises, how to claim a floor spot of their own. As for me? I would tunnel-vision my way to the ellipticals—there were always empties there, and the motion seemed pretty hard to screw up—do my thing, and get out. I wanted to check out the weights, but I was afraid that it’d be blatantly obvious that I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like the people who could lift serious weight deserved that space more than I did.
In time, I gained a gym buddy who showed me the ropes. That, along with developing greater familiarity with my body and the moves, helped me slowly gain confidence and strength over the years to feel like I really belonged at the gym. I mastered exercises, adjusted machines like a pro, and slipped bigger plates onto barbells. I lost that “I don’t belong” anxiety, and the gym started to become a place of comfort for me.
More than 15 years, a handful of gyms, a personal training certification, and a position as SELF’s director of fitness later, I can now say that I can feel at home in pretty much any gym. But I still vividly remember that feeling of intimidation, the pull to stick to my status quo, the desire to back away.
I know that I’m not the only one: Tons of people who want to start going to the gym are feeling that uneasiness right now. And they’re blocked not only by those internal barriers that I mentioned above, but external ones, too. All you have to do is scroll through fitness Insta and you’re met with memes lamenting the crowds and deriding the influx of newbies (for example, here and here). Hell, you might even be met with resistance from some gyms themselves who want to play up their exclusivity factor. Equinox reportedly barred new members on January 1, as part of their We Don’t Speak January campaign. Fitness should be for everyone, but there are still tons of systemic barriers holding many back.
For people just getting started at the gym now, these early days are likely going to bring worry and anxiety along with it, especially for groups who are often underrepresented in the fitness space in general. So that’s why I’m imploring you, the person who does feel comfortable in the gym, who does feel like they belong, to take inventory of your actions and behaviors there. A few simple tweaks can go a long way in making someone feel more welcome—and wouldn’t you have wanted that courtesy when you were just getting started? I know I would have.