Most people assume that January is the busiest month at the gym. It’s true there’s a surge in new memberships, but it’s actually springtime that my group fitness class numbers see a significant increase. I have a few theories about why, but I think the main reason there’s a gap is it can be intimidating to take a new fitness class, especially if you perceive yourself to be out of shape or uncoordinated. I get it. In fact, my first strength training class happened when I was training to be the instructor. This column from 2012 is addressed to others like me who are afraid they can’t keep up, will look foolish, or fail in a group class setting. I do my best to make everyone feel comfortable and capable, but getting people through the door the first time is the biggest challenge of all. Maybe, just maybe, I can assuage some of those fear in this piece. Read on.
Dear new girl in the back row in class today,
I noticed you. I know you were hoping to blend into the background. I know you picked today to try my strength training class because it was so crowded you figured I wouldn’t see you, but I did. Actually, I’ve been watching you for the last week as you passed by the window, checking out what was going on in the group exercise room from the corner of your eye. I could tell you were curious. I could also tell you were unsure.
You’re unsure if you belong at the gym. A stranger in a strange land. The equipment is unfamiliar. The trainer lingo a foreign language. You had no idea there were so many ways to squat. On your right there’s a guy in the corner doing pull-ups with an oversized chain draped around his neck. Yes, a chain. On your left is Jillian Michaels flicking ropes like they were licorice. (Actually, this woman makes Jillian look out of shape.)
You’re unsure if you are physically capable of what everyone else is making look so effortless. Why are you the only one breathing heavy? Why are you the only one whose face is beat red and slick with sweat? How is it possible to run with full makeup looking beautiful in Lululemon tops worthy of wearing out in everyday public life? You’re feeling self conscious about your shape and your state of physical well-being. You feel as if every eye in the gym is on you wondering the same thing. You imagine you hear the whisperings. “What is she doing here?” “What does she think she can actually do?” “Thank goodness that’s not me.”
You’re unsure if you can make a change in your life. You want to, but do you want it enough? Will you fail at this? Will you make a fool of yourself? Have you already made a fool of yourself?
You’ve noticed me, too. You imagine this whole workout thing is a piece of cake for me. Every exercise is as natural as breathing. You probably think as soon as I go home I’m going to whip up a protein shake before I shower and have a lunch of kale and quinoa. You’re sure I’ve never met a Twinkie face to face or even know where the closest McDonalds is. You’re sure I’ve never been intimidated by the muscle men or the super-fit chicks. In fact, you think I am the super-fit chick and you and I have nothing in common. You imagine that I see you and shake my head in disgust. You’re sure I could never understand your struggles with weight and nutrition or self-image. You’re sure I gaze in the mirror every morning, enamored by the image staring back at me.
I know you. I was you. Years ago, I wanted to make a change. Fifty pounds heavier than where I am today, I considered 20 minutes on the elliptical a success. I’d exercised on and off for years with little or no change, mostly because for every calorie I burned, I ate three. I had a love affair with Snackwells and Mt. Dew. My head was ready, but my heart wasn’t. Until it was. I was tired of being tired. What I was doing wasn’t working and I was ready to quit pounding my head with the same hammer. Those first few weeks at the gym tested more than muscle. I, too, walked by the group exercise classes watching intently the moves they made, who attended and how in shape they were. I was looking for someone who looked like me, doughy and uncoordinated with discount yoga pants and no-name sneakers. I was in awe of the instructor who looked as she was chiseled from stone. Who knew you could have 8-pack abs! I desperately wanted to be a part of their inner circle. They looked like they were having so much fun, pushing each other, lifting each other, and cheering each other on.
My first class was an indoor cycle class, chosen for very specific reasons. First, the room was dark, so if I sweat deep puddles on the floor, no one would see. No one would notice my red puffy face or the distress in my eyes. Second, there was no coordination involved. I hadn’t danced since the days of the Cabbage Patch and Roger Rabbit and it was not a good look on me then, much less now. Third, even though it was a group class, it was a solo workout. I didn’t have to pair up with anyone. The instructor wasn’t hovering over me checking my form. There was low-risk for embarrassment, so I took a chance. It was a life-changing decision and I’ve never looked back.
Ten years after taking that first class, I am now a fitness instructor. That class gave me confidence, life-long friendships, and a passion for fitness and teaching. So much of what I longed for as I gazed through the glass and watched others living the life I wanted, I now have. Those classes never got easy, but they did become fun once I became comfortable.
You think everyone is judging you, but here’s the reality. If they even notice you at all, they’re applauding you. Taking charge and making change means making little choices every day that add up to giant shifts in the long run. No one’s noticing you struggle. They’re noticing you succeed. Most of us at the gym are encouraging and sympathetic. No matter how skinny or fat we may look, we all struggle. Self-image issues aren’t restricted to the overweight and out of shape. You’d be surprised at how many “fit” people are insecure on the inside. We are all searching for acceptance and approval. Hopefully we find it in healthy ways. That’s my hope for you. I hope you feel comfortable in my class so eventually you are comfortable with yourself. I hope that in the weeks to come you lift your eyes up off the floor, stand up tall and own your achievements.
Every single person in that class that you may think is an expert started off as a newbie once. Every. Single. One. Every single person walked in and had a “first day” experience either choosing the wrong weight, stepping the wrong way, or using wrong form. Every single person woke up and had to decide whether to sweat or to sleep. Every single person is dealing with daily obstacles that threaten to erase their progress. Every person has days when they feel like they got it going on and other days when it’s all going terribly wrong. Every single person including me.
And if there is that rare species that looks down on you because you choose the light weights, just put your blinders on and move along. Anyone who finds personal gratification in someone else’s perceived weaknesses isn’t worth a second thought anyway.
Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Do reach out. Do step forward. We’re all in this together.
Yours in fitness,
Kim from the Gym