Surviving Gym Culture: Crush it before it crushes you

I step in the gym, and I feel it.  Maybe I’m too sensitive.  It might be all in my mind.  But I’m sure that I’m on the outside of the ‘in’ crowd.  I feel for just a moment like the little, socially awkward girl I was in school – never quite fitting in and feeling like hiding away in the corner of the playground.  There are lots of reasons to stop going to the gym, and it’s important to recognise that a negative gym culture is one of them.  I was inspired to write this after bumping into a few acquaintances who told me that they had stopped going to their gym because of the culture.  Culture is my word, not theirs.  They used words like ‘bitchiness’ and ‘cliques’ and described feeling left out, talked down to and not good enough in some way.  Some were moving on and trying again somewhere new; others had lost their motivation.  At least I was not alone.

Every gym has its own culture.  There are unspoken pecking orders and un-elected leaders of the pack.  New languages and dress styles mark out the members of the in-group and those on the ‘outs’ have a job of it trying to assimilate.  Some gyms are friendly, but many more purport to be friendly while actually being exclusive and elitist.  Cliques and little circles of drama abound, rivalling any prime time soap.  It can become difficult to remember that this is only about working out.

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Becoming part of the culture seems to be an essential part of the successful fitness journey, and yet how this accomplished is less clear.  In body building for example, experienced male body builders found the gym environment to be a source of social support and were more comfortable about their bodies than body building newbies[i] .  More experienced female body builders have described similar perceptions, even though they have had to overcome social stereotypes about female muscle[ii].  So while sticking with it might mean that exercisers start to feel more in tune with and supported by the culture, we also have to assume that those who are new have to figure out how to fit in.  And beyond that, we can also assume that those that didn’t last the distance had their reasons.  Body image might also play a pivotal role in being able to feel comfortable at the gym.  While we might remind ourselves that everybody is there to improve their body, very poor body image can negatively affect motivation to exercise[iii] .  Gender can also play a part, with women feeling more out of place than men[iv] [v] and struggling to keep going long term.

Stepping aside from the dry factoids of research, we can all identify with feeling unsure of ourselves. The start (or re-start) of the whole gym thing can be intimidating.  So if you can’t leave – or aren’t ready to be beaten by the school yard politics – it would be good to know how to survive.  Here’s some bits to bear in mind and practice:

1)Re-focus on  goals – So all the skinny cardio bunnies are looking at you sideways as you grunt through the briefest of treadmill jogs.  So what?  You are allowed to start where you are, and even though this whispering, giggling clique of matching sports bra and Capri leggings make you feel out of place, they don’t have the right to rob you of your goals.  Smile and carry on being the best you can.  If nothing else, remind yourself to get your money’s worth from the gym.  Yes, you deserve to be there. Stick with it and remind yourself why.

2) Be mindful of the Dark Side – All that self-perfecting, body-focus can have a dark side.  Like it or not, the body is the perfect to tool in the battle against low self esteem, and if you are in the gym, you will run into those with personal problems that run deeper than the fake tan.  Disordered eating, exercise dependence and dysfunctional perfectionism are all common ways to feel more in control in response to other difficulties in life, and are all things people might be dealing with in a gym near you.  Those with these issues suffer, sadly, but for those around them, it can also be a difficult experience.  If someone seems over the top, try to appreciate that they might be struggling and don’t take it too personally.

3) Get out of other people’s minds – That ever-so-perfect woman doesn’t return your smile again today.  It means she a)Hates you   b)Thinks you’re fat   c) None of your business.  Simple truth: What other people think is none of your business.  Trying to make it your business is going to leave you worried and locked into people-pleasing.  Your fellow gym go-ers are thinking things about you, but you probably are not totally accurate in reading minds.  And even if you were correct in guessing what they think, could you deal with it?  Probably, yes you could.  One person’s opinion is only that – One person’s opinion, and that needn’t stop you.  Just because Joe Biceps over there thinks you’re taking up too much time on the bench press, doesn’t make him right.

4) Be the change you want to see in the Gym – Ghandi suggested we try to be the change we wanted to see in the World.  In this instance, let’s start smaller, by being the change you’d like to see in the gym.  Is it cold and unfriendly?  Say ‘hi’ to someone and ask them about their workout.  Is it judgemental?  Take the lead by welcoming someone new.  Is it overly image focused?  Buck the trend by smiling at the ones who haven’t bothered to match their socks today.  You’ll be happier as well as helping to create the supportive culture that will keep you going.

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[i] Hurst, R., Hale, B., Smith, D. And Collins, D. (2000). Exercise dependence, social physique anxiety and social support in experienced and inexperienced body builders and weightlifters. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34, 431-435.

[ii] Castlenuovo, S. and Guthrie, S. (1998). Feminism and the Female Body: Liberating the Amazon within. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[iii] Brown, Tessa R. “Does Social Physique Anxiety Affect Women’s Motivation to Exercise.” Department of Psychology (2000): 219-224.

[iv] Sport Engalnd (2014). Go Where the Women Are.

[v] Salvatore, J. And Marecek, J. (2010). Gender in the Gym: Evaluation concerns as barriers to women’s weight lifting. Sex Roles, 63: 556-567.

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