I’d tried the gym before. Whenever I went, before I first embarked on my weight loss journey in 2008, I’d always go with a friend. I needed that gentle push—or two-handed shove, as it were—to make sure I actually followed through.
Sure, I’d get dressed, pack my little water bottle, put on my workout shoes…but actually leaving the house? Actually walking through the doors of the gym? Actually doing stuff?
There’s something about the gym that felt terrifying to me. I’m not sure if I felt as if there were a two-headed dragon inside that I’d have to slay in order to get to the treadmills or what, but my body would tense up at the thought of it all: walking through those doors, choosing a machine, and working out…publicly.
It didn’t take me long to realize what made the gym such a terrifying place: I had to work out in front of other people.
In one of my favorite books, The End of Overeating, the author interviews an overweight man who laments, “I’m a fat guy—and no one wants to watch a guy who’s overweight eat bad food. They just find it repulsive.” Ask any overweight person you know, and they’ll tell you: It often feels like no one wants to see any of us do anything. The leering, the stares, the awkward and uncomfortable unsolicited advice that forces us into politeness instead of a self-defensive stance. It’s a level of discomfort that makes many of us feel like we would be better off simply giving up.
Working out with friends was easy. We could laugh and joke through the sweat, and they could drag me to the finish line—sometimes kicking and screaming—in a way that helped take my focus off my fear of exercising publicly. But my friends couldn’t drag me through the entirety of a years-long 170-pound weight loss journey, defending me from the sneers and stares of “alpha dog” gym-goers and boosting my ego every time it takes a tumble. I knew that sooner or later, I’d have to learn how to handle the gym environment on my own.
When a 24-hour gym opened up around the corner from my home, I realized an opportunity had presented itself.
I thought, What if I went to the gym during its least busy hours? Could I have the space all to myself? Yes, and that’s exactly what I did…and I did it alone.
First, I became familiar with the exercise equipment in private, searching the web for quick videos to help me understand how the different machines worked. My fear of working out with others also separated me from people who were most knowledgeable about important matters like injury prevention and proper form, so I knew I needed to be serious about learning it all myself.
I also had to trick myself into feeling less anxiety about the gym environment. I told myself I was going to the gym to enjoy my favorite TV show (back then it was The Cleaner on A&E) uninterrupted—and I did. I’d consistently make sure to arrive right before the show started, and I’d spend the entire episode on the elliptical. Once it started feeling easy, I increased the resistance, and pushed harder, simultaneously zoning out to my show.
I also had to slowly grow to embrace the weights, something I was always convinced I’d need. I didn’t simply want a leaner figure—I wanted a more capable body. I wanted to be able to do more, and being more comfy with the weights is essential for that. Late nights, around 10 P.M., I’d visit the gym with my little list of exercises I’d researched, and dance from one machine to the next. (I mean, I had a completely empty gym…why wouldn’t I take advantage?) Soon, I started exploring what it meant to train in high intensity intervals—I kept it simple, training on multiple machines in one big circuit, and then repeated that circuit twice. And voila! I accidentally stumbled upon a formula that made me feel better, transformed my body over time, and helped me develop the confidence to explore the gym any time of day.
Over those first few months, I made progress. My time in the gym started to bring me joy, and the gym turned into a more positive space instead of a scary one.
I also had to find ways to mentally cope with the anxiety I felt surrounding public exercise.
That meant, first and foremost, reminding myself that the gym is merely a microcosm of the outside world. We have our kind-hearted strangers, our awkward oafs, and our straight up bullies in the outside world, too.
Second, it meant recognizing that I belonged there just as much as the buff guy next to me. In the gym, I was simultaneously working toward my goal of losing weight and getting in shape but also feeling pressure to not be in the way of those people who “deserved” the space more than I did. But I realized, after rationalizing with myself and mentally shooting down every argument I made for why the gym was for them and not for me, that’s the wrong way to look at it. If I’m paying my hard-earned money for a membership, then I’m just as entitled to that space. It’s not about being in the gym and already “looking like you work out.” It’s about using that space for whatever suits your needs, and that doesn’t have to be related to your appearance.
Oh, and about that “alpha dog.” The super-aggressive, super-muscular, super-bossy guy (it’s almost always a guy) who looks (and sometimes behaves) like he deserves to be there more than you. I had to coach myself into realizing that this person is 10 times worse in my head than he is in real life. I had to remember, I pay the same fee he does and in case he forgets, I can just have the gym employees remind him. The upside to the gym environment is that unlike the real world, it has staff to help referee problems like this.
By working through my fears, I learned what it truly means to develop an active lifestyle.
The journey has been long, but it has been so gratifying. Working through my anxiety got me to the point where I developed a consistent fitness routine, lost well over 170 pounds, and eventually became a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. (Important note: I also totally overhauled my eating habits, which plays an even bigger role in how much weight I’ve lost.) Now, as I am embarking on the second leg of my journey after having my second child, I lean heavily on what I learned during those late nights in that empty gym to help me propel myself forward.
Oh, and even though I hit the gym during peak busy hours fearlessly now, I still dance from machine to machine—in all that dancing, I learned just how much of a motivator the “Tootsie Roll” can be. #totheleft #totheright #nowdip
Erika Nicole Kendall is a NASM-certified personal trainer with specializations in women’s fitness, weight loss, and fitness nutrition; a certified nutrition coach through Precision Nutrition; and the founder of A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, where she blogs about her personal weight-loss journey and gives exercise and healthy eating tips for weight loss.