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How to overcome these common workout fears — and finally lose weight

Easy solutions for feeling self-conscious in the gym, battling back pain and other common workout concerns that prevent you from losing weight.
Image: Athlete wiping sweat with towel
Being out of breathe and breaking a sweat can be uncomfortable when first getting started with a fitness routine. The good news? Most of the time, they are both normal bodily responses to exercise. John Fedele / Getty Images/Blend Images

Are workout fears keeping you from the gym? Getting back into an exercise routine is daunting enough, let alone joining a new facility that you are unfamiliar with, surrounded by people you don't know.

A nationwide survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by Fitrated found that 65 percent of women and 36 percent of men avoid the gym out of fear of being judged. This apprehension was more common among those who rated themselves less attractive, less in shape or less experienced at the gym than others. And the fears may not be completely unfounded: one in three respondents admitted to judging others while at the gym.

In addition to feeling self conscious about how you look or your fitness level, uncomfortable physical sensations and fear of injury can all add additional layers of anxiety that can make it hard to motivate ourselves to get to the gym.

But if you’re making fitness a priority in the new year, we’re here to help you bust through some common fears that may be holding you back — and ease that mental burden a bit.

Fear: Feeling Self-Conscious About How You Look

Over half of people surveyed by Fitrated admitted to not looking fit enough to be at the gym, and nearly 44 percent said they felt judged for their clothing choice. But you don't need to go out and drop a chunk of change on a new workout wardrobe to feel better. If you’re wearing an oversized t-shirt, you can tuck it in in the front or roll up the sleeves to give it some shape. If you’re not happy with what your body looks like right now, you can also use a few tricks to hide trouble spots you might be uncomfortable with. If you’re embarrassed by flabby arms, wear a long-sleeve dry-fit workout shirt over a sports bra (instead of a short-sleeve shirt with a jacket over it, which is too likely many layers for an indoor workout).

Professional stylist Samantha Brown recommends looking for garments with a thick, stretch fabric or even compression fabrics to help slim the body. “Quality matters here, as higher end athletic lines are designed with more attention to hiding loose skin, cellulite and silhouettes that flatter,” she says. When it comes to downplaying certain areas of your body, she recommends to “look for matte fabrics (avoid shine and glossy materials). While pattern will draw the eye, a darker print can also help to minimize the appearance of cellulite or loose skin tone as it provides distraction.” She also says, “to help downplay a loose tummy, opt for a high-waisted legging or athletic pant with a wide band. Anything low cut exaggerates this problem area.”

Fear: Getting Out of Breath

After a few minutes on a cardio machine, you may feel out of breath, and maybe you panic. I had a client who explained this fear to me multiple times — saying that she knew it was inevitable to get out of breath, but she couldn’t push past it. She felt silly, but she’d simply get off the machine when the breathing got difficult because she was so scared of not being able to breathe altogether.

Dr. Jamie Wells, director of Medicine for the American Council on Science and Health, explains that it’s not uncommon to get out of breath with exercise, especially if you’re out of shape. She encourages people to have “a fully informed conversation with and possible evaluation by your doctor, because going instantly from extremes of a more sedentary lifestyle to a heavy duty workout tends to cause the most problems. Easing into it is likely more enduring and will be a more ideal bet.”

So remember not to go from zero to 100 right out of the gate. As you’re working out, check in with your breathing. Breathe in through your nose, and blow out through your mouth. Do some self-talk and tell yourself that you will be okay if breathing starts to become more challenging (and that you can always get off the machine). Start by giving yourself a 1-minute time period to be out of breath. If it’s too difficult to bust through this fear on your own, hire a personal trainer for one session with the goal of getting out of breath while supervised.

And it is smart to be aware of signs that may be worrisome. "Those concerning signs include, but are not limited to, chest heaviness or pressure especially with a rapid heart rate, inability to catch your breath, lightheadedness or feeling faint, chest pain, confusion, feeling like your heart is racing as well as dizziness along with poor color," says Dr. Wells.

Fear: Breaking a Sweat

I once had a client who was so scared of breaking a sweat that we had to put a wet washcloth on her neck during her workouts. She felt comfortable sweating if it was hot outside, but not comfortable making herself sweat at the gym. With the washcloth, I was able to help her focus her attention on being cool on a sensitive spot on her body (her neck) while the rest of her body was sweating. Sweating is one of your body’s ways of detoxing, so we also continued to focus on the positive effects of sweating (instead of the discomfort).

Wells explains, “We sweat as a normal way to self-regulate our body temperature and dissipate heat should we be taxed by physical exertion or hot weather, for example. An otherwise healthy person under typical conditions should be able to cool down readily and compensate." She adds that it may help to realize that while sweat is a loss to your body, it is one that you can easily replace through hydration to achieve that balance. By understanding what’s going on in our bodies, and that’s it’s normal to sweat during a workout, will help reduce fears.

Fear: Hurting Your Back

Getting injured is a legitimate concern — and that's where proper form comes in. When doing lower body exercises, like squats and lunges, it’s important to engage the lower abs to support your back. Pull your naval in towards your spine, and never do exercises that feel like they’re pulling on your back. Work out slowly and consciously so that you can notice even the slightest feeling of discomfort in your low back. At the end of your workout, stretch by lying down on your back, and then hugging your knees into your chest for 20 seconds.

Many people believe that exercise can aggravate back pain or make it worse, but working out properly can help strengthen the back and reduce pain. Eric Owens, co-founder of Delos Therapy, who specializes in pain management that involves stretching muscles and fascia with pressure, says, “Strengthening the core with abdominal exercises along with strengthening the back with big compound movements such as the squat are important for a healthy core and healthy body — but remember that strengthening only comes after restoring pliability.” He urges people to focus on flexibility and increasing the mobility of the muscles before using strength training to strengthen your back. If you have a back injury, consult your doctor or physical therapist before starting any exercise regimen.

Fear: Pulling a Muscle

Warming up before you work out is just as important as stretching after you work out — and it can help you prevent a pulled muscle. Owens explains what a pulled muscle may feel like: "Typically, it presents as a sharp pain at the location of the strain or tear with subsequent limited range of motion and weakness.”

To help prevent this, make sure you stretch properly. For pre-workout stretches, make sure you keep moving and are doing dynamic, active stretches. Try this:

  • Step forward into a lunge position with your right foot forward. Bend the right knee to stretch the left hip flexor, and then straighten the right leg to stretch the right hamstring. Keep moving back and forth without holding the stretch. Switch sides.
  • Swing your arms around to stretch your torso. The key is to keep moving during these pre-workout stretches.

Post-workout you can perform static stretches, where you hold them for 20-30 seconds, because your muscles are already warmed up from the workout. Here's an example:

  • Move into the same lunge position, but hold it for 20-30 seconds.
  • Stretch the hamstring for 20-30 seconds, and switch sides.

Fear: Breaking a Machine

I’ve had more than one client ask me if I think it's possible to break a machine while working out. Generally they’re afraid of stepping onto an elliptical or sitting on a spin bike and breaking it. Of course there is always a small chance that if a piece of equipment is used incorrectly with a lot of force, it can break, but this is highly unlikely. Put this fear aside, and when in doubt, ask an instructor or a personal trainer to help you adjust the bike or elliptical correctly before hopping on.

Fear: Not Accomplishing Your Goals

Do you have that nagging fear that this time recommitting to the gym (and vowing to lose weight) is going to be like all the other times — a one hit wonder? If you’re worried about letting yourself down (again), try to break down your goal into smaller incremental steps, like focusing on one workout at a time. Focus on your successes in that single session: Did you push yourself 30 seconds more in cardio, or did you do more reps with your arm exercises? Did you feel less out of breath or stronger during your workout? Track these individual successes, be proud of yourself and bask in the glory of successfully completing it. Then, move on to the next day. Over time, you'll encourage yourself to push harder through each individual exercise session, which will add up to major results in the long term.

Fear: Not Knowing What to Do

If you’re worried about looking awkward when you're in between exercises, use the downtime to add in a few small stretches. Try these stretches:

  • Stand up next to a wall or another machine nearby and stretch your calves. Put your right toes up on the wall or machine, and standing upright lean into the machine or wall to feel a stretch in your right calf. Then switch sides.
  • Stand up and cross your right ankle over your left knee, and bend the left knee slightly to feel a stretch in the right glute. You can hold onto a machine or the wall for stability.

While you're stretching, you can assess the gym layout, eye different machines or weights that you'd like to use, and mentally make a plan without anyone knowing that you need the extra time to prepare.

Fear: Post-workout pain (that doesn’t go away)

If you’ve suffered from an injury from the gym, you may be worried about this happening again. To reduce the chances of an injury, ease back into fitness, especially if it's been awhile since you've had a consistent routine. We tend to feel a burst of motivation in the new year, which is great, but jumping into an exercise routine full throttle can lead to injuries that may put you out of commission (and halt your progress altogether), so it's better to start small and gradually increase your intensity.

The good news is that “muscular discomfort or a strain will usually go away in a day or two. Symptoms can include soreness that is localized, bruising, stiffness and weakness,” according to New York City-based physical therapist Marianne Ryant. If these symptoms feel familiar, take it easy until the pain subsides. If you go to group classes, do half the repetitions and half the intensity that the instructor suggests. Stand in the back and go at your own pace. If you’re doing strength training, cut your weight in half. Same thing with your cardio: cut your speed in half. And beware of symptoms that linger, and of any immediate pain that you felt that was accompanied by a sound (like a snap or pop). These are signs that you should consult a physician.

More tips for a better workout in 2019

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