How to stop feeling so anxious about fitness

Once upon a time, I was a skinny teenager who was embarrassed I wanted to lose fat and become leaner.

I was unhappy with my body. I envied the people who looked lean and athletic, yet didn’t seem to have to work for it. Those guys who just seemed to naturally have a 6 pack. I had zero confidence in himself or my ability to interact with other people.

And because of that, every day I’d do push-ups and sit-ups in secret. I’d check the nutrition facts only when I thought no one would notice.

If someone caught me working out I’d feel horribly awkward, ashamed, and embarrassed. Like I’d been exposed. I’d immediately stop what I was doing and pretend like I wasn’t just working out. Nothing to see here!

The social circles I frequented made it uncool to care about these things. I mean, when you’re young, it’s uncool to care about most things really. But caring about how your body looked really wasn’t cool. It didn’t fit with how me and my punk and skater friends identified.

I was too ashamed to make the consistent dietary decisions necessary for what I wanted my body to look like. And I was too afraid of getting bulky or being seen as a brainless meathead to lift heavy weights, even though strength training was necessary to reach my goals.

So, I continued to flounder.

I kept making half assed, sporadic attempts that naturally didn’t go anywhere because I had no structure, progression, or consistency. Because I was too worried about what other people would think to build that consistency. My training was based around when nobody would notice, which was unpredictable and outside of my control.

Teenager me took all this baggage with him into adulthood. I danced around what I wanted to achieve by pursuing activities I thought could make my body look better without directly working towards that goal.

I still felt too much shame and awkwardness to make an honest attempt at changing my diet. I knew I needed to be committed, but I was afraid people would say, “You’re already so skinny! You don’t need to lose weight! You should be grateful! I wish I had a fast metabolism like you!”.

By the way, this fear was well warranted. People had said these things with predictable consistency whenever I’d opted for a salad over a burger.

I didn’t want people to take my decisions personally though. It wasn’t about them. My unhappiness with my own body had nothing to do with them! I didn’t care what they ate or how they looked.

Eventually, I started training in BJJ and Muay Thai with hopes I’d get lean and muscular without admitting that’s what I really wanted. While I did actually enjoy these sports, I wasn’t being honest about what I was hoping to get from them. To myself or anyone else.

Being committed to martial arts did mean I had an out though -- I had a simple way to justify my unhealthy obsession with nutrition and training. It’s a lot cooler and “masculine” to say, “I need to eat clean for BJJ” than to say, “ I don’t like the way my body looks”.

When you’re an athlete and you work hard and with focus, people say you’re “dedicated”, but if you work hard and focus towards getting lean, people say you’re, “vain” and “obsessed”.

So I fell victim to the typical sexist body shaming bullshit: social norms say women aren’t supposed to want to get bulky, and men aren’t supposed to want to get skinny.

And I continued to fight with myself. I continued to have this internal conflict which prevented change. I was stuck. It made me feel shitty about myself.

Not just that, it actually drove me to get physically injured. Often. I’d push myself too hard physically. Every few months I’d end up so wrecked I couldn’t train at all.

So what happened?

Finally, it hit me. Quite literally. I got injured yet again. But this injury seemed to have knocked some sense into me.

I realized I wasn’t meant for this. I realized this way of life wasn’t getting me anywhere. Everytime I felt like I was starting to progress, I’d just get hurt and get sent back to square one.

I realized I was destroying my body for nothing and if I kept on this way I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself by the time I was 60, let alone 80 or 90.

After nearly a decade, I finally accepted what it was I was after.

I accepted I was usually more excited about lifting than doing martial arts. I stopped being ashamed of working out. I realized there was nothing wrong with wanting to be more in shape by my own definitions.

I started being honest with myself. I became unafraid of change, of who I might become. I stopped being afraid of being associated with the gym bros. I knew that wasn’t me.

You don’t immediately morph into an asshole because you start lifting. Beyond that, I kinda just stopped giving a shit. I started focusing on getting stronger which helped me to give less and less shits.

I stopped feeling embarrassed about working out or making nutrition a priority. And it was like a weight had been lifted off of my chest. I felt so much lighter.

Since then, my relationship with my body has been way less complicated. I feel quietly confident. My body got leaner and more muscular. I saw steady progress. My quality of life, my happiness, temper, and general ability to function improved drastically.

Most of the time, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made and the work I’ve put in. I don’t attach emotion to the weight on the scale, or my worth as a human on whether or not I can see my abs. Even if I’m not the most ripped person in the room I’m comfortable in my skin.

My stress, anxiety, and anger issues are no longer compounded with self loathing everytime I look in the mirror. I still have days where I feel inadequate, not muscular enough, too hairy, too disproportionate, whatever, but they don’t dominate my thoughts every single time I look in the mirror. I still feel anxious in most new social situations, but the anxiety is less intense and much more manageable.

Strength training changed my life.

Strength training can be meditative. Looking back I think this might have helped me overcome my anxiety and insecurity around fitness and my body.

The emphasis on lifting with proper technique meant when I was lifting I was really “in” my body. I was present. I was only focused on the weight and what my body was doing.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of this side effect of strength training, that lifting can be a way of fostering a connection with your body the same way meditation or yoga does.

I kind of only fully realized it as I was writing this. But the research backs up that this sort of mind/body thing helps with feelings of anxiety. A meta-analysis of out of John Hopkins University found meditation can help to lessen anxiety, depression, and stress.

Paying such close attention to technique when lifting things isn’t good solely for your physical health, but for your mental health as well.

Weight lifting isn’t usually lumped in with other mindfulness practices though, but I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be. Mind/body practices are all focused on intentional, controlled movements. And just like those practices, the breath is also important in lifting.

The thing is, as I got stronger, I got more confident. I felt less anxious and uncomfortable in situations that otherwise would have left me socially incapacitated.

Part of it was the fleeting feeling of accomplishment whenever I hit a new personal deadlift record, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think the consistent practice of being in my body had a side effect I hadn’t realized.

Because if you’re lifting a heavy weight, you can’t be thinking about anything else.

If you do, the lift isn’t going to go well. You have to be very focused on what your body is doing in the moment, how it’s moving through space, where you’re holding tension, and which muscles are moving the weight. This is how I treat lifting for myself and encourage this whenever I’m coaching clients online or in-person.

This is simply another way to practice being present, similar to meditation.

If you keep a strong focus on what your body is doing so as to have solid technique, it will give you better physical results because you can lift heavier weights more safely.

However, I also believe it will yield some of the same emotional and mental benefits as doing any mind-body practice.

How identity plays into all this

In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits he says, “Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).”

I had such a hard time finding fitness success because it clashed with my identity at the time. So I ended up self sabotaging and worrying about what others would think.

Clear goes on to say, “If you're looking to make a change, then I say stop worrying about results and start worrying about your identity. Become the type of person who can achieve the things you want to achieve.”

So what does this mean for fitness?

Well, this is what took me soooo long to realize:

You don’t have to identify with stereotypes associated with a certain activity.

Growing up everyone I knew who lifted weights was an asshole, so I didn’t want to do anything that remotely associated myself with those kinds of people.

But, correlation is not causation.

Your identity is your own. You can build your own relationship with fitness that has nothing to do with how others relate to fitness.

This brings me to the next point.

Reframe your narrative about what fitness represents to you

Maybe, right now, weight lifting represents machismo/toxic masculinity, vanity, and/or ego.

But what if you could see it another way? What if those qualities weren’t inherent to weight lifting?

What are some other qualities that can be associated with strength training that you’d like to embody? Like patience, focus, and determination?

Reframing means changing how you look at something. Ultimately, we see everything through the subjective lense of our own brains.

There’s always more than one way to look at something. And ultimately you decide what that perception is. No one else.

If you don’t want to be a super obnoxious gym bro, you won’t be.

For me, it’s been a process. I didn’t just go from being anxious about lifting to being excited about lifting. I transitioned with the whole BJJ side story. I found an excuse to start training, then I reframed it later.

None of this was intentional of course. And I’m not recommending you intentionally be dishonest with yourself about your goals. I’m highlighting this to make the point that:

  1. The transition can take years.
  2. Sometimes you need to reframe things piece by piece rather than all at once.

Granted, this might have happened more quickly had I already known everything I’ve written about in this post. But still, the point is, it’s a process. And there’s no end point.

The more you progress in your journey, the more clearly you’ll be able to define and articulate what it is you want and who you want to be.

Make it easier on yourself

If you know going to the gym at certain times makes you anxious, don’t go at those times. If this isn’t possible, buy a kettlebell or some dumbbells and workout at home. If you identify what’s making you anxious, see if you can find a way to navigate it, avoiding it if possible.

Don’t make things harder than they have to be. Think strategically and avoid any unnecessary obstacles that will compound your anxiety.

Be proactive in eliminating things that compound the anxiety

I got really into lifting as I was getting into personal training. While I had lifted in college and had made some effort to learn good technique, it wasn’t the same. In college, I wasn’t full on trying to become as knowledgeable as possible like I was when I started personal training.

Being new to the field, I felt completely out of my depth. I felt (still do btw) it was my responsibility to be as knowledgeable about proper lifting technique as possible. So I hungrily tried to soak up any knowledge I could that would help me be a more competent coach.

A nice side effect of trying to sponge up everything I could about training and exercise was I eliminated this piece of the anxiety puzzle for myself.

Feeling out of place at a gym made me anxious, in part because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. This just added to the stress I was already feeling about being in a crowded gym.

So by learning about how to exercise properly I somewhat accidentally became more confident and comfortable in the weight room. More on this in the next section. For now, this is just an example.

There’s probably more than one reason you’re anxious about working out. Identify what those reasons are. Because doing so means you can examine what is within your power to chip away pieces from the stress boulder.

What can you do to whittle away at the things that add to the anxiety? What’s in your control and what isn’t? How can you act on this?

Become a student

People like what they’re good at.

One of the most common things I hear from people who are nervous about lifting is, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to look like an idiot or get hurt”.

Now, if you walk into the gym, not knowing what you’re doing, not even knowing the various names of kinds of weights, naturally it’s going to be a pretty scary place. You see lots of really muscle’y dudes throwing around really heavy weights and being quite loud in the process.

“Well they clearly know what they’re doing! I don’t fit in here. Sigh. ”

Luckily, this problem is relatively straightforward compared with the other complex feelings we’re dealing with.

If not knowing what you’re doing is making you anxious, learn to know what you’re doing.

This is a matter of putting in the time and work. Now, if you’d rather someone show you how to lift properly rather than figure it out yourself or need the extra guidance, support, and accountability this could mean potentially hiring a skilled coach to help you out.

Either way, become a student of fitness. You don’t have to learn everything, just the basics.

Let me tell you a story to show you how powerful this concept is.

I have an online client who I’ve only been working with for a few months. She wanted to get stronger to improve her daily quality of life.

If you want to get stronger, the barbell is the best tool for the job. However, barbell lifts are among the most advanced.

I knew this client would benefit greatly from using barbells, but I wanted to make sure she was ready for them before I wrote them into her workout program. So what was the solution?

We worked our way up to barbell lifts. Her program was designed to get her ready for barbell lifts over the course of a few months.

Now, through the course of these few months, she really nailed the consistency thing. So she saw her strength go up and really started to looking forward to her workouts, even before she started barbell training.

However, when she started lifting with barbells, she said things felt different.

She said it was really cool because the barbell section is kind of the most scary part of the gym. So when she did barbell squats and deadlifts, knowing she was doing them properly, she felt like a complete badass. This was an “aha” moment. The gym was no longer something she dreaded and forced herself to do, but something empowering.

All this awesomeness happened because she was a student of lifting. She focused on improving her technique every workout. When she felt like she knew how to lift, she felt like she belonged in the gym.

**Side note: Me saying get better at lifting because you’ll feel like you belong in the gym is NOT me saying you don’t belong in the gym if you don’t know how to lift. I wish gym culture was such that everyone, regardless of fitness level, could feel like they had a right to be there, but we’re not there yet.

Feeling competent in something is a key motivator.

This is all to say: put in the time, focus, and effort to learn these things.

The more you do so, the more confident you’ll feel when working out, the more in tune with your body you’ll be, and the less anxious you’ll feel about the whole thing.

You, of course, don’t need to go to the gym if you don’t want to, but I’d say it does help not only with your physical results, but with becoming more comfortable and confident in the actions you take towards those goals. Because, as was the case with my online client, learning how to use a barbell feels pretty badass.

Ease into it/break it down

To reiterate, you don’t need to lift barbells on day 1. My clients certainly don’t.

Maybe the cardio section is less intimidating? Why not start there?

Then maybe doing some bodyweight strength exercises in the warm up section. Then maybe you start figuring out the machines. Then once you’re feeling ok with that, you’re probably feeling a bit more at home in the gym. It might be time to venture into the free weight section, even if just for one set.

Everything can be broken down into its parts. This makes the task much more emotionally manageable.

Break things down into small, unintimidating steps. Nudging yourself out of your comfort zone, but only ever so slightly.

If you’re nervous about swimming, you don’t dive straight into the deep end.

Again, what you’re doing here is whittling away the things that make you anxious about fitness.

Conclusion

This post was one of the most difficult blogs I’ve written. It’s an inherently messy topic and writing about my own vulnerable experiences articulately is always a challenge.

This post has recounted some things that have helped both myself and my clients feel less anxious about pursuing their fitness goals, and I hope it helps you if you’re dealing with these same issues.

Simply put, this stuff isn’t easy. There are no easy answers here.

But I hope this post has given you something to work with and at the very least has given you something you can relate to. Because the benefits of fitness and strength training shouldn’t be reserved for those who find it easy.

If you still feel like you need a bit of help feeling confident in the gym, if you feel like you need a source of friendly and non-judgmental support, accountability and guidance check out my online coaching page here or just email me at jeff@mortontrainingsystems.com with the subject line "Coaching" and we'll schedule your free consultation call :)

Posted on Mar 06, 2019