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9 ways to combat gym dread and reach your fitness goals

If it's been awhile since you've exercised, it’s natural to feel intimidated. Here's how to move past it.

by Wendy Rose Gould /
Many people ‘fall off the wagon’ because they aren't setting realistic goals. Set SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.Shutterstock
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Cookie season is winding down and that gym season is upon us. As people embark on treadmills across the land, it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed and intimidated — especially if you’ve “fallen off the wagon” or are doing this whole “workout thing” for the first time.

“Any change can be overwhelming, and fitness is no different,” says Dr. Rachel Goldman, a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor at NYU’s School of Medicine. “Many people don’t know where to start; there is so much information out there that it can be overwhelming. Further, if people have tried routines that didn’t work in the past, they may think back to those experiences and automatically think this one won’t work either, which will only increase their level of anxiety.”

Where you were last year, last month — heck, even yesterday — doesn’t matter. Today is a new day, and you can reach your personal fitness goals. Here’s how.

Know You’re the Only One Paying Attention to Yourself

At some point, everyone feels like they don’t belong at the gym. They worry people are judging their clothes, their sweat, how fast they’re taking the elliptical or the time it takes them to figure out the leg machine. The truth, though, is that everyone’s so focused on reaching their own goals that they barely notice you.

“Most people at the gym are too engrossed in their own workouts to pay attention and if they do, they generally applaud anyone who is in the gym — a place where like-minded people congregate,” says Dr. Lori Shemek, a psychologist and certified nutritionist.

Bring — or Make — a Friend

Having a cohort at the gym, or at least someone regularly checking in and cheering you on, can help you feel more comfortable and keep you motivated. You can even make friends with people at the gym, advises Clarence Hairston, a certified personal trainer and fitness director at The Bay Club Company. He says, “Find someone who is working towards the same goal as you and use them to help keep you accountable.”

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Compliment Yourself

“We have to be careful what words we use when speaking to ourselves,” warns Dr. Goldman. “Our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all linked, so if we think negative thoughts, eventually we will behave that way and then feel bad. We can change that and start thinking positive thoughts and speaking kinder words to ourselves.”

Make a promise to yourself, right now, that all negative talk will be identified, challenged and replaced.

Set SMART Goals

SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. “Many people ‘fall off the wagon’ with any health behavior because they are not setting realistic goals for themselves,” explains Dr. Goldman. “If we set small, realistic, SMART goals then we will be able to make progress. By achieving those small goals, we then find motivation to keep going.” Instead of "lose weight" opt for "lose 10 pounds by March 1" or "lose 5 inches in my midsection," both realistic and attainable goals that are also able to be measured so that you can track your progress.

Craft a Plan

SMART Goals are wonderful, but you need a game plan to accomplish them. Write down exactly what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. If your goal is to "lose 5 inches in your midsection," map out exactly what steps you'll need to take to get there. Research recipes you can meal prep ahead of time, schedule your workouts each week and set check-ins every week to measure yourself and track your progress towards your goal.

Remember Your Accomplishments

“Use previous positive experiences as motivation and reminders that you can do it,” says Dr. Goldman. “So, if you have done a fitness routine in the past that worked for you, remind yourself of that positive experience.”

It’s easy for negative experiences and thoughts to overshadow the good things. Write down your accomplishments in a log or post them on a bulletin board and revisit them frequently, especially when you're feeling discouraged.

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Prioritize Hydration

“Lack of water intake raises stress levels and the hormone [called] cortisol. Walking into the gym adequately hydrated should be a priority because it helps clear your mind, which is important when working out properly,” explains Dr. Shemek. “Drinking water everyday is key in keeping stress at bay. I recommend getting a water ionizer to ensure you aren’t drinking acidic levels of water. Tap water can destroy healthy gut bacteria due to the chlorine it contains.”

Drinking more water is also a very easy step to take towards better health — one that has a big return, like increasing energy, boosting your immune system and preventing you from overeating. Starting with committing to drink more water for a week — and conquering that challenge — may give you the momentum you need to tackle the fitness goal on your list.

Mix it Up

“Doing the same workout or fitness routine can get boring if you do the same thing every day,” notes Hairston. “Experiment with what your fitness facility offers, figure out what you like, find something that excites you and mix it up. There are so many different fitness avenues these days that you could do something new every week for a month and not repeat the same thing.”

That can also mean not going to the same location every day, and alternating between the gym, your neighborhood and a yoga studio.

When Life Happens, Get Back Up

We have all fallen off the wagon at some point. It’s inevitable that life will sometimes get in the way of your fitness goals, but it's how you bounce back that matters. Don’t lament the days, months or years that’ve gone by since your last sweat, but do know that these next 20 minutes, six months and 365 days will pass regardless. Where will you be at the end of each?

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