Swimming class was a gym requirement when I was in high school in the 1990s. We all dreaded wearing the requisite 50s-style bathing suits—which were frayed, see-through, and worse, color-coded by size. They offered a commentary on our bodies at a time when we were already feeling self-critical.
As students, we had no choice but to endure the school-sanctioned humiliation. But even most adults have little interest in revisiting the anxieties associated with group or public exercise. Center for Disease Control and Prevention 2022 a study found that less than a quarter of American adults meet aerobic and muscle training guidelines.
Social scientists have called anxiety about public exercise “real fear.” Researchers are learning more about exercise anxiety and the barriers that keep people from feeling the burn.
Read more: What is anxiety and how can anxiety defeat us?
Many people who want to start working out feel intimidated by regular gym goers and worry that others will judge their appearance or lack of fitness knowledge. Social scientists call this type of anxiety “gymtimidation‘ and I found that it helps explain why many people pay for gym memberships but rarely go.
Gymtimidation is a species fear of social evaluation, meaning that people worry about being judged by others while exercising. Studies have found that these fears are complex and vary from person to person.
2021 survey in Well-being, space and society conducted ethnographic fieldwork in four gyms in England, as well as in-depth interviews with 18 gym users and staff. The author identifies common themes surrounding exercise anxiety.
Some people, for example, have “personal level barriers” where they fear the idea of being embarrassed by public exercise. They worry about doing the wrong move in aerobics class or getting scolded in the weight room for breaking etiquette.
Others expressed problems with “barriers at a social level”, including being judged for not knowing how to use the equipment or feeling as though staff have a negative attitude towards them.
“Environmental barriers” also kept people away from the gym. These barriers include overcrowding and concerns about the structure of the gym. Bright lights and mirrors in a fitness center made people feel uncomfortable and staged while working out.
The idea of being watched while exercising can be stressful for many people, and researchers found it was greater among people with anxiety.
A 2019 article in the diary Mental health and physical activity found that people with anxiety disorders tend to avoid exercise, and there are complex reasons for this.
For the study, researchers recruited people who had symptoms of at least one anxiety disorder, such as agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or social anxiety disorder.
In addition to anxiety disorder symptoms, participants also had to be between the ages of 18-65 and report exercising less than 2.5 hours per week. After completing online screening questionnaires to assess for specific anxiety disorders, 16 participants proceeded to the in-person interview process. All participants identified as female; the average age is 26.13.
Almost all – 87.5% of the participants – had symptoms of social anxiety disorder. Seventy-five percent had symptoms of more than one disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
All participants had exercise anxiety and the researchers were able to analyze their interviews and identify several emotional responses. The first, classified as cognitive, is anxiety, where the person is worried about getting embarrassed during exercise. Participants feared being judged for performing exercises incorrectly or criticized for how they looked while sweating or out of breath.
Another emotional response categorized as physical is anxiety related to how the person may feel during exercise. Some participants were concerned about pain or discomfort while exercising. Others have found that the physical sensations that come with exercise — sweating, shortness of breath, and a racing heart — mirror the symptoms they associate with their anxiety disorders. The idea of these physical sensations was anxiety-inducing, and for some, avoiding a workout routine brought temporary relief.
Read more: Can you predict a panic attack?
All study participants reported having had a negative experience that triggered their exercise anxiety and felt that their exercise anxiety was compounded by their anxiety disorder(s). One participant, for example, gave up going for walks because she was worried about falling and injuring herself while outdoors. She considered walking indoors like in a mall, but she didn’t want to see people she knew while exercising.
However, participants described social support as helpful. Having a friend to walk with or take a spin class with helped reduce anxiety symptoms. But when that friend was no longer available, the participant stopped their exercise routine.
The authors concluded that although exercise can be a means of reducing anxiety in some people, it can also be a major source of anxiety in others.
Apparently my old high school co-workers realized the same thing and stopped pushing color-coded swimsuits on embarrassed teenagers. Sometime in the 2000s, the policy changed and students were allowed to wear their own swimsuits to class.