Katie Byrne: 'Is 'gymtimidation' making newbies abandon their fitness goals?'

If you’re one of the thousands of people who joined a gym this month, you’re probably feeling quite proud of yourself right now. You’ve got the box-fresh runners, the skin-tight Lycra and the high-reaching goals, but what you probably don’t realise is that the odds of success are stacked against you.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the drop-out rate among people who join the gym in January is significant (60-80pc according to varying reports). We tend to attribute this drop-out rate to a simple lack of willpower. After all, if the prospect of financial loss isn’t going to get you off the couch, then what will?

We’re less inclined to think about newcomers’ experiences during those first few visits – and the ‘gymtimidating’ factors that might be pushing them away. All social groups are territorial by their very nature – we’re animals after all – but this dynamic is much more pronounced in the testosterone-soaked culture of the gym where people pound their chests by way of pumping iron.

Walking into a gym for the first time is never easy for a newcomer. In fact, it’s a little like turning up to a party and realising none of your friends are there yet. Of course, at a party you can always take out your phone and pretend to text people. In a gym, your phone is stowed away in your locker – and thanks to the brain fog of social anxiety, you’ve already forgotten the code that you typed in two minutes ago.

After doing a gentle lap of the entire space and pretending to tie your shoe-laces (best not to look idle), you head towards the relatively unthreatening treadmill section. The problem is that these machines tend to be over-run in January and you’re not sure whether you should form an orderly queue or ‘call dibs’.

The next best option is to find the piece of machinery that looks least likely to kill you in a freak gym accident. Is that someone tittering as you sit backwards into the seated chest-fly? You’ll never know because the sound is soon drowned out by the sudden kerplunk of weights.

At this point you should really ask for help, but the truth is that you’re in too deep. And besides, you can’t admit defeat when you’re wearing neon leggings and a T-shirt that says ‘No Excuses’.

No, you will persevere by doing some floor-work, i.e. copying someone who seems to know what they’re doing. This goes well until the person you’re following gives you the type of look that they’d shoot at a sex pest in a playground. Apparently you shouldn’t study someone’s form when they’re doing a sumo squat…

After this incident you haven’t even the confidence to use the water dispenser so, instead, you take yourself to what seems like the safest space in the gym – the sauna.

Gym newcomers often feel like everyone is looking at them as they try to get to grips with complicated equipment and house rules. And while this is largely down to the ‘spotlight effect’, we shouldn’t pretend that their feelings aren’t legitimate. Some gym regulars don’t like the way the January rush impinges on their fitness routine or, more to the point, the dominance hierarchy of their fitness tribe.

They don’t like queuing for machines and they don’t like watching newcomers use machines incorrectly. They mark their territory with grunts and sweaty towels and they feel a rush of dopamine-tinged schadenfreude when they witness a newbie trying to straddle the bicep curl machine like it’s a bucking bronco.

It’s no surprise then that a recent study of 2,000 adults found that 55pc of them had no idea what they were doing at the gym, while 23pc were too embarrassed to ask for help. Gyms are fully aware of this problem, and with a few tweaks, they could help newcomers feel more welcome and supported. They could pair newbies with regulars to help them understand the equipment, for example, or they could introduce classes especially for novices.

And yet, for the most part, they don’t do this because they rely on the drop-out rate that occurs after the January rush.

If you really want to stay motivated at the gym this month, remember that there are lots of people rooting for you to fail. If that doesn’t work, plug in your earphones, blare out some nasty gangsta rap and do your thing. It worked for me.

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