If you’re in the market to meet new people, the gym is a great place to start. But how do you overcome the awkwardness of approaching strangers in the changing rooms? We’ve roped in the experts to explain.
Making friends as an adult is a daunting prospect for everyone, whether you still have your mates from school and uni or not. I’ve never understood how people manage to form proper relationships with folk at the gym, given that gym classes are often dark and loud and weights rooms are a place for keeping your head down and digging deep.
I first started going to the gym properly in about 2016. I mostly went on my own to the Fitness First by my office, but on weekends, my mum would save up her guest passes to her own gym and we’d go to Zumba, body pump and yoga on a Saturday morning. I’d be working hard for three hours while she’d be gossiping in the breaks with her huge gang of fitness friends – women who’d been going to the same classes for years and for whom the gym was something of a sanctuary from family, work and other commitments.
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My mum’s fitness gang even went to Turkey on a yoga retreat a few years ago. I’ve always envied her ability to make mates at the gym – which is arguably easier when you’re retired and you can plan your days around hanging out in the sauna or gym cafe.
As a working person in London who mostly uses ClassPass, being a fitness lone wolf has always felt like an inevitability. But in the past few weeks, I’ve finally started to feel like I’m making some genuine connections.
It happened a couple of weeks into a 21-day challenge at The Foundry. The challenge involves committing to two small group PT sessions a week and as many bigger classes as you feel like. For me, that meant doing two classes and two PT sessions during the working week. One of the women from my first PT class turned up in my session the following week and we started chatting about how many classes we were each doing at the gym – eventually swapping numbers to coordinate future sweat sessions.
In my final week, a group of women were in the changing room discussing how much they hated cardio, and why the cardio gym classes were genuinely harder than going for a run. Normally someone who’d keep quiet as the conversation happened around me (at the gym), I decided that as I’d spent the past few weeks doing both the Sweat (cardio) and Strength (strength training) classes, I was well-placed to join the moan about having to use the assault bikes and rowers.
It felt good to laugh and role eyes with people who knew the pain of that specific class, and to come out of the gym feeling both physically and emotionally topped up – all before 8am.
After three weeks of committing to the same gym at roughly the same times on the same days, I’ve started having little conversations with women I recognise.
One of the biggest reasons I feel more comfortable is the fact that in each class, you’ve got to work as part of a three or four-person team; that means having to at least acknowledge the other people in your block. While I’m not mates with anyone I’ve been in class with yet, it’s definitely been a huge factor in feeling self-confident enough to chat freely.
While that might all sound a bit sad and pathetic, I know that I’m not alone. Many of my friends “don’t do the gym”; if you’re like me, you’ll have made your main groups of mates by your mid-20s largely as a result of being half-cut in smoking areas. It’s easy to change your lifestyle if you want to but in my experience, it’s not so simple tweaking your friendship circles.
Fitness spaces can be physiologically difficult
Environments like the gym really can be harder to make friends in, explains chartered clinical psychologist Dr Clair Burley. “An important part of making friends, in attachment terms, is a feeling of psychological safety. If we feel a place or a group of people are safe, we are more likely to feel open and confident to approach them,” she tells Stylist. Part of feeling psychologically safe, she says, is a feeling that we belong.
“This can be influenced by whether we feel we ‘fit in’, whether that’s in a particular class or exercise (eg yoga versus weights), an identity (do we see ourselves as a ‘gym person’?), or in a place (attending regularly).
“Another part of psychological safety comes from the cues we pick up from others. For instance, if people are smiling and saying good morning, we are more likely to get chatting than if people are expressionless or silent.” And of course, gyms can make us feel self-conscious when we doubt that we’re doing certain exercises correctly or there’s a certain aesthetic linked to the gym.
It’s not just us – most gyms are designed to be antisocial
Then, there’s the physical layout of most gyms and studios. Psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Alison McClymont points out that many gyms are covered in mirrors and aren’t designed for interaction: “They are sectioned into stations and exercise machines are often placed to face away from each other.”
In those environments, “it takes a significant effort to strike up a conversation when they are not designed for this. In fact, you can feel like you are disturbing someone rather than being friendly if you even acknowledge another person.” With that and the fact that for many of us, our gym time is precious and limited, “it can feel unnatural to engage in conversation with a person who has headphones on and is only staying an hour.”
In a class environment, Dr McClymont says that there’s rarely time for interaction pre and post-class, which leaves the changing room as the only available chance to catch up. “Interacting in a changing room is even more fraught with social awkwardness given that it’s not a socially common.”
With that and the fact that for many of us, our gym time is precious and limited, “it can feel unnatural to engage in conversation with a person who has headphones on and is only staying an hour.” In a class environment, Dr McClymont says that there’s rarely time for interaction pre and post-class, which leaves the changing room as the only available chance to catch up.
“Interacting in a changing room is even more fraught with social awkwardness given that it’s not a socially common experience to speak to a stranger in a state of undress,” she explains. “All of our social conditioning tells us to keep our eyes forward and mind our own business.”
Friendship are made connecting over how hard classes are or how crap the gym is
All of that makes total sense, particularly in light of my newly found confidence. From the incredibly friendly receptionists to the instructors who seem to know everyone by name, the atmosphere at The Foundry is unlike any other gym I’ve been to. There are bodies of all shapes, colours and ages. The concentration is very much on form and doing the exercises correctly and while the classes move fast, team mates fall over themselves to let you know what you should be doing.
And because the classes and PT sessions are hard and involve lifting heavy, pushing and pulling sledges and operating rowers, bikes and skiers, each session is in a bright room. That means you can see everything all the time – unlike studios like Barry’s and Victus Soul which thrive on the “get in, heads down, work hard” vibe of anonymous fitness. Those studios are brilliant for getting your sweat on but in my experience are virtually impossible for making any kind of connection.
But it’s not just in fancy, specialist gyms like The Foundry that camaraderie is formed. Chloe Gray, Strong’s fitness writer, has been part of a gym gang for a few years after bonding over the broken hair driers. “We always trained at the same time and then were in the changing rooms together. A few of them knew each other a bit from classes, then one day, I was like ‘FFS, why are all the hair dryers always broken?’
“That’s how we all bonded. I actually think it’s easier if you go to a fairly crap gym to make friends.”
Given how much Brits love a good moan, that scenario is all too easy to believe. But what if there’s nothing broken and you can’t afford, say, to do a small PT session somewhere?
Going to the same gym at the same time is the easiest way to start relationships
Dr Burley acknowledges that “it can feel difficult to know how to get started with making friends.” One thing that really helps in building relationships, however, is familiarity. “In social psychology terms this is called the ‘familiarity principle’, where people develop a preference for something by being repeatedly exposed to it.
“For instance, if you attend the same class at the same day and time every week, then the people who go to the same class will become familiar with you. This will help in making the first move. Then start with a simple hello and a smile, and gradually chatting more and more each time.
“Try to find and talk about things you have in common, starting with the class you both attend or exercise you both enjoy. Then build on this over time, maybe asking them if they’d like to go for a coffee after class.”
It sounds obvious when you break it down, doesn’t it? Going to one or two classes or gym sessions a week, every week, is naturally going to lead to some conversation at some point. What comes next is up to you.
4 hacks for feeling less self-conscious at the gym
“When we are feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable, we are not in a calm state,” she explains. A part of us is feeling a sense of threat, whether that’s from our own mind (eg struggling to lift a certain weight) or our perceived ideas of how we are being held in mind by others (eg they’re going to think you’re unfit if you don’t complete a set quickly).
“When we are feeling activated like this, our brain operates with survival as its goal, which can sometimes get in the way of connecting with others,” Dr Burley continues.
To get us back into a relaxed state, we need to calm our breath. “It’s the only physiological stress response that we have conscious control over. Taking slow deep breaths gives the feedback to our body to be calm. Once we’re calm, we are likely to feel less self-conscious and more comfortable in being open and making the first move.”
Adapt to social awkwardness
Dr McClymont recommends keeping interaction transactional at first to allow for those who wish to keep themselves to themselves and also those who are time-poor. “After a few of those interactions, try more easy social talk about your day or other things you like doing in the gym and allow friendships to develop easily and freely,” she says.
When we’re happy, we release endorphins and neurotransmittors that signal to our facial muscles to smile. But, Dr Burley says, we can do the same thing in reverse: when we smile, it sends feedback to our brain that we are happy. “This feedback loop can help us to feel less self-conscious as well as signalling to others that we are friendly and open.”
Remember that you’re not alone
Dr Burley calls this “connecting with our common humanity”, by which she means remembering that most of us experience the same kind of anxieties and desires. “As humans we are hardwired for connection and so it is hugely likely that others in the gym will be feeling the same way – wanting to make connections but feeling self conscious,” she explains. “Knowing we aren’t the only ones who are having this experience can help us to feel more comfortable.”
So the next time you’re worried about jumping into a conversation with the group standing in their underwear while they do their make-up, know that you’re not alone. It’s not a ‘normal’ thing to do… but then again, neither is lifting huge bits of metal or sprinting on a treadmill for the sake of it.
Looking to make new fitness mates to go to classes, chat with and share training ideas? Join Strong Women on the Squaddy app today.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.