Gym anxiety

What going back to the gym is really like: from losing strength and confidence to facing harassment

Posted by for Strength

When restrictions lifted in April, most people couldn’t wait to return to their beloved gyms. Four months on, one writer reflects on what going back to the gym has really been like. 

It may sound sad, but I literally counted down the days until 12 April 2021, when I could finally step back into my beloved gym. After months of yo-yoing between it being closed, then open, then closed again, it was such a relief to feel, finally, back on track.

Like a lot of people, exercise is crucial to maintaining my mental health and my chosen fitness outlet –weightlifting – couldn’t be done at home without a load of specialist (and expensive) equipment.

But I also missed the gym environment, too. After so long away, I’d started to visualise it as this kind of utopia, where I always felt like my best self and there was nothing a good sweat session couldn’t fix.

During lockdown, I was lethargic, lonely and a little bit lost, but getting back into the gym was the key to re-inventing myself as a strong, self-assured person. Or so I thought.

The gym isn’t a perfect place

Four months after I first returned to the gym, I’ve finally been able to reflect and start coming to terms with some mixed emotions about the place I’d thought of as my sanctuary.

In my longing, I’d conveniently forgotten that there were, of course, many less-than-perfect parts of the gym that undoubtedly take their toll on you, especially as a woman. 

It may be a saving grace for me and so many others, but it has been so much more difficult than I imagined to go back to it after so long. I’ve had to learn some hard-to-swallow lessons, and quickly. 

Losing the progress you’ve made is painful

When others have lost their jobs and loved ones, it is an extremely privileged position to be in that all I have lost during the pandemic is kilograms from my shoulder press and deadlifts. Those suffering with long Covid have had their strength affected more than I have, too.

But when you love something a lot and you’re no longer able to do it, or do it like you used to, it hurts.

One of the most motivating aspects of strength training is committing to that next PB, digging deep for just one more rep and it can be devastating when your body isn’t doing what your mind knows it can - or at least could.

Some of my former strength has come back, but in most areas I can’t help but feel like I’m plateauing – no matter how much I try super-setting or progressive overloading my way back to my former glory.

The biggest challenge since returning to the gym, however, has been training my mind. I’ve had to learn patience – how to treat myself with care and compassion rather than contempt.

Gym-timidation is still very real

Over the last year and a half, our anxiety has collectively increased, particularly around returning to “normal”. Yet as an extrovert, I never thought it would bother me that much, and especially not at the gym.

In before times, I’d saunter my way into the free weights section and go about my workouts with no hesitations. But being out of the game has meant my trust in my body has taken a nosedive. I’ve started to second guess myself and my form for exercises I know I’ve been doing right for years. I even went to a personal trainer for refresher sessions after the end of lockdown two to try and help me regain my lifting confidence.

This newfound nervousness is only made worse by re-experiencing the absolute worst part of gym culture: the unsolicited advice and harassment.

Though home workouts were always a means to an end for me, at least they spared me the hassle of dealing with people (usually men) approaching you to offer their opinions on what you’re doing or staring you down as you try and go about your workout.

And of course, it only ever happens to me when I’m training alone, and never when I’m with my boyfriend or a male gym partner. 

Exercise can’t solve everything

“Staying at home has created a new normal, a new routine and a new comfort zone,” neuro-linguistic programming coach Rebecca Lockwood tells Stylist. “As we start to move out of our comfort zones, it causes the feeling of uncertainty, anxiety and overwhelm. This is what we all experienced at the beginning of lockdown, and now it will be having the reverse effect when we come out of lockdown because it has been ongoing for so long,” she assures.

I guess what I’m learning is that no amount of exercise-induced endorphins and strength training wins can counteract the physical, emotional and mental toll of the last year.

It’s been so hard, in so many different ways, for all of us and it’s understandable that we’re trying to compare our lives before Covid and manage our expectations of what they may look like after, our hobbies included.

The gym may be my happy place, but it’s certainly not perfect, or a magic bullet that can cure me of all life’s stresses. And that’s ok. 

Need some back-to-the-gym inspo? Head over to the Strong Women Training Club, where you’ll find workout tips, training plans and healthy recipes designed to get you stronger today than you were yesterday.

Images: Getty

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