A Beginner’s Guide to Gym Culture: Unsavory Characters – By Matthew Custer

10 Sep A Beginner’s Guide to Gym Culture: Unsavory Characters – By Matthew Custer

Going to the gym can be a healthy, rewarding, and invigorating experience for anyone who wants to improve their physical and mental wellbeing. However, besides the unfamiliar equipment and polite considerations to learn, there is also the potentially intrusive “gym culture” element that might hinder you from having an effective, comfortable workout.

It’s understandable that any newcomer to working out in a gym can be apprehensive about all the other people moving around, heaving, grunting, and wheezing their way to fitness. In addition, young women might feel threatened in the presence of overt displays of aggression by various men and even other women. Observant people will notice how much extra attention a woman will receive, especially in the weight room, a typically male “gendered space.”1 This observation is so well-known in fitness circles, that such lewd behavior has been satirized.

You may be asking yourself, “how can I possibly feel comfortable in the gym?” First, it is important to note you have just as much right to be there as anyone else. There might be people who walk around as if they own the place, but know that they are a gym member like you. Some aggressive behavior is warranted in a gym if it’s directed at exercise itself. It’s when this behavior is turned on others even in subtle ways that can be disconcerting. One popular way to avoid this social situation is to not participate in these threatening areas at all. If this is the only way you feel at ease, that’s fine, but there are other things you can do while having all the benefits a gym can offer for your health.

Also, it is good practice to not compare yourself and your body to others that might be very fit in a way that is unhealthy to your self-esteem. Sure, you can look up to someone to help you visualize an end goal. To go down the path of thinking yourself as somehow less of a person than others is not going to make you feel inspired to be truly healthy inside and out. So, realize that such self-conscious comparison is really a projection of insecurity and know that you are more than your body and your outward appearance. Practice self-kindness and self-compassion instead.2

It is possible that the gym staff could help with your concerns, especially if there are obvious signs of harassment. What is more likely, though, is that they won’t be able to do much about people that seem intimidating or are subtle about their leering. You could also confront such people about their behavior, but doing so might not get the desired outcome. As in many social situations, the best answer isn’t always clear. Do what you feel is right given your specific social context.

Many gyms have enough space that you can find an area that is relatively comfortable. Sometimes you will have to move your weights or whatever exercise equipment to these locations. Distraction in general should be avoided when focusing on working out anyway. In large gyms, there are often separate rooms, floors, and in some cases, a designated women’s only area. If you have more than one option for your future gym where you live, consider the floor plan and amenities in addition to the general social environment. Also, if available, check out the peak gym traffic hours, usually in the early evening after 9–5 jobs. You might consider going during an off-peak time.3

If you’re a more social workout sort of person, having a workout buddy can go a long way towards success in the gym. That person is able to provide safety in numbers and can also give you mutual encouragement and accountability. Lastly, if you are not at the point where you are comfortable in a public gym, even when taking some of the advice above, there are other choices for you to make exercise a part of your life. Check in your area for women’s only gyms. There could very well be intimidating people at these places as well, but for some, getting away from a male-dominated area is what’s needed.4 And of course, you can have the convenience of your own home gym or you can go outside and workout in the fresh air.

I hope this piece doesn’t paint a gloom and doom scenario about getting acclimated to a gym and its unique culture. There are plenty of good, honest people in gyms that are trying their best to be healthier and more fit. Certain subsets of people that make the gym a large part of their identity and lifestyle might be overwhelming. And even still, you’d be surprised how kind some of the larger-than-life people really are. As in life, try not to judge an individual by the way that they look until they give you reason to do so. In short, be mindful and aware of each new gym environment and take appropriate action when you feel uneasy. You might not be able to single-handedly dismantle the harmful effects of egotistical gym culture, but you can do your part not to perpetuate and reward such unwarranted behavior.

Want to read more? Here’s a helpful link!

1Newhall, Kristine E., “Is This Working Out?: A Spatial Analysis of Women in the Gym,” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2013), http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/2594 (accessed July 19, 2014).


2Heidi Grant Halvorson, “Forget Self-Esteem: You Need Self-Compassion to Succeed,” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-success/201209/forget-self-esteem (accessed August 12, 2014).

3Jason Anderson, “Beat the Crowds at the Gym: 9 Ways to Wait Less and Work Out More,” http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/fitness_articles.asp?id=1259 (accessed July 28, 2014).



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