Does the thought of starting a fitness routine or hopping back into an abandoned one incite doom, stress or apprehension? Exercise anxiety is a very real thing.
Raffi Bilek, a licensed therapist and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, said a common reason that people get nervous about heading to the gym is because of social pressure to look a certain way.
“It’s often an impossible ideal to attain, or at least it certainly seems that way. And that fear of failure can contribute to anxiety over even getting started,” he explained.
Grace Dowd, a licensed clinical social worker in Austin, Texas, added that exercise anxiety can stem from people worrying that others will judge them while they work out, from feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of fitness options, from setting unobtainable goals, and from body image issues.
According to Dowd, exercise anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways ― physical symptoms such as a fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, nausea or lack of appetite, as well as mental symptoms like excessive worry, rumination and imagining the worst-case scenario.
And the condition is common. “From my experience, I can say that anxiety is the main reason that keeps people from going to the gym or starting a new exercise routine,” Dowd explained. “The irony is that exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety.”
So how do you fight the stress and worry associated with embarking on a new fitness routine? Try one of these expert-backed strategies.
Take time to discover the right workout routine for you.
“Exercise anxiety is many times created by negative thoughts related to fear of failure, embarrassment and fear of pain or injury,” explained Cindy Radovic, the clinical director of emergency and inpatient mental health services at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Maryland.
There are unlimited opportunities to overcome these feelings, but Radovic noted that you have to first be kind to yourself and do what feels right to you.
“Whether that be personal training, small group workouts or training programs, it’s truly all about finding the right fit, in the right time, and creating a routine that is enjoyable to you,” she said.
Between the vast array of equipment and options, fitness can be daunting. To help curb anxiety in this department, Mark Mayfield, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers, said to approach your workout with a plan so you know what to expect.
“Sometimes exercising can be difficult because there is an unknown component like ‘how long should I work out,’ ‘what type of cardio should I do,’ etc. If you are able to plan it out, then you can develop a set of realistic expectations,” he explained.
Kasia Ciszewski, a licensed professional counsellor in South Carolina, said to keep workouts short when you’re starting out.
“For example, tell yourself that you only have to do 10 minutes on the treadmill. Next time, maybe try 12 minutes, the following week maybe work up to 15 minutes,” she said, suggesting a “slow and steady wins the race” mentality.
Doing 10 minutes on the treadmill sounds a lot more manageable than an hour, and eventually, it will become easier to go beyond that point.
“Anxiety is the main reason that keeps people from going to the gym or starting a new exercise routine. The irony is that exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety.”
Don’t compare yourself to others.
It’s very easy to get caught up in social media and play the comparison game, especially if your feed is filled with #FitnessInspo accounts that feature all sorts of ripped and modelesque influencers.
But Jacob Kountz, a clinical therapist in Bakersfield, California, said, “this will likely cause you to get stuck while trying to obtain how others are getting their own results.”
He added that the less you focus on what others are achieving, the easier it will be to focus on what you’re achieving.
Put your imagination to good use.
Linda Weiskoff, a licensed clinical social worker with Atlanta’s Heartwork Counseling Center, said letting yourself daydream about your activity can make fitness feel more exciting. For example, picture yourself in a sneaker ad as you’re moving down the sidewalk.
“Enjoy the fantasy of being an athlete in a commercial. [Using] your imagination in this way adds some entertainment to your walk,” she explained.
Weiskoff used her own advice throughout the years: “On past morning walks, with every uphill climb, I’d guide myself with ‘Just do it,’ then imagine myself among the other athletes in Nike ads. It added some fun to the experience.”
Remind yourself that avoidance often makes things worse.
Alicia Henry, a psychotherapist and wellness coach in New York, said “anxiety and avoidance go hand in hand.” It’s one thing to not work out because your body and mind just aren’t feeling it; it’s another to avoid exercise altogether because you’re afraid.
Henry noted that the best way to overcome uncomfortable feelings is to work through them. “Remind yourself that while avoidance may offer temporary relief, it will ultimately land back where you started; feeling frustrated and powerless,” she explained.
Reward yourself along the way.
Rewards may reduce your exercise anxiety, “as long as you clearly define them upfront,” said Abby Lev, a California-based psychotherapist and founder of CBD Online.
For example, if you exercise for 30 minutes a day, three days a week, then give yourself permission to buy yourself something that you’ve always wanted or to go somewhere you dreamed of going, she said. Humans respond well to rewards, so there’s nothing wrong with attaching them to exercise as long as you’re doing it in a healthy way.
Label your exercise anxiety.
Thomas McDonagh, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist and founder of Good Therapy SF, advised verbally placing a name or label on the emotions you are experiencing.
“Continue to name the emotion until the intensity begins to fade,” he said. An example: “I am experiencing pre-workout stress right now.”
McDonagh said you should repeat this like a mantra until the stress begins to fade. “Research shows that verbally labeling an emotion decreases activity of the amygdala and other brain areas associated with emotions,” he said.
Adopt the 1% mindset.
Look at exercise as a fraction of your time. Fifteen minutes is only about 1% of your day. Whether you choose yoga, swimming, HIIT, or just a simple walk around the neighborhood, try dedicating just those few minutes to a new workout.
“It’s easy to fall into the all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to fitness, but the truth is that the benefits you reap from moving your body are cumulative,” said Logan Jones, a Manhattan-based psychologist and founder of NYC THERAPY + WELLNESS and Clarity Therapy Online. “The work you do will have a positive impact on your health and level of fitness over time, regardless of how short each session may seem.”
Get a friend involved.
“Commit to working out at certain times each week with a friend ― virtually, or in the park, whatever works,” said Elena Touroni, a psychologist based in the United Kingdom and founder of My Online Therapy. “Exercising with other people is a great way of building momentum and you can both encourage each other on the days when negative or anxious thoughts are creeping in,” she said.
Touroni added that, alternatively, there are lots of apps and online training programs that have a community aspect that enable you to share stories and log your achievements that day.
Use affirmations to stay grounded.
There’s power in what you tell your mind. Jones suggested the following anxiety-reducing affirmations:
My body is improving.
I’m focusing on my health every day.
My fitness is increasing each moment.
My health is important to me at this moment.
I have the right to develop a healthy body or any type of body that I wish.
I’m taking care of my body.
I’m a work in progress.
I love my body.
I trust my body.
My body works with me and not against me.
Add in something you love.
“My No. 1 tip for my patients is to pair something they love with something they don’t love but should do,” said Sean Paul, a Florida-based psychiatrist with Now Psych. “When you pair something you love with exercise, it becomes less anxiety-provoking and you may even look forward to doing it.”
This could be listening to your favourite podcast while walking, calling a friend to chat when on the elliptical, or listening to your favourite music as you lift weights, Paul said.
This story is part of Don’t Sweat It, a HuffPost Life series on improving your relationship with fitness. We’re giving you a guide on the latest thinking on exercise and why we’ve been conditioned to hate it in the past. Mental health and body-positive fitness experts will offer guidance and show you how to find a routine that works for you. Find all of our coverage here.