smile woman

By Leah Staff, PTS

The gym can be a scary place, until you feel like you belong. When joining or rejoining a gym, it can raise intimidation that make us fearful of being judged, left out, conspicuous or other feelings of simply not fitting in. Let’s look at it a different way to see that the gym is indeed the right place for you!

In all areas of life, we either feel like we belong or like we don’t. Back in the 1970’s, Henri Tajfel developed the theory of in-groups and out-groups as part of social identity theory; situations where we either see ourselves as a group member or as an individual. With a sense of common ground, interests or circumstances we experience a sense of loyalty, common purpose and togetherness with other people.

We are a part of this particular in-group and feel comfortable because we have an idea of what to expect from members of our group and what is expected of us – a team at work, your curling club, fellow dog owners, are just a few examples. If someone is part of an out-group, a group to which we don’t belong, it is easy to see them as “other” and separate from ourselves. This information will sound familiar to many of you. Here’s what might be surprising. Creating an in-group can be as simple as assigning a random group of strangers to a team. Think of the last time you were at an event and assigned to the Blue Team. Did you automatically feel a competitive push towards the Red Team, even though two minutes earlier you were all part of the same large group? The same idea applies when walking your dog in a new neighbourhood and you automatically smile or wave to other dog owners. You have common ground that allows for easy, casual interaction. They get you and you get them.

Let’s apply this in-group theory to going to the gym or a fitness class for the first time. It feels daunting. You don’t know the social etiquette, who is new like you and who are the regulars, what is the cool dress code, how to work the machines, do you bring your own water or are there water fountains, where is the change room – the list of unknowns can be quite long. We assume that we are seen as a member of the out-group. We are a newbie trying to get into the in-group. It is natural to experience a heightened awareness of all the ways in which we are different, whether or not our assumptions are correct. “Everyone else has a towel, I don’t.” “Lots of people seem to know the instructor and what equipment we need. I am clueless.” And, the most common thought? “I am the most out of shape person here and everyone can tell.”  At the gym, it can feel like everyone else but us belongs there and is super fit. But, just because you feel like an outsider, doesn’t make it so.

Here comes the good news. You do belong. Simply by showing up you are part of the group of people who exercised today. Congratulations! You are in the elite 20% of Canadians! A pretty nice in-group wouldn’t you say? That camaraderie is immediately noticed by other people in the gym. In all my years as a personal trainer, the only comments ever made by my clients about fresh faces in the gym all ran along the lines of “I hope they come back.” Without exception, they were wishing people success. When we are comfortable in the gym, it is easy to see others as part of our group.

Here’s the take-away message: The rest of your gym family, even though you don’t know their names, are all rooting for you! So head high, big breathe and smile. Guaranteed you’ll get a smile back!


Leah Staff is a communications consultant, wellness expert, and 25 year veteran of the wellness industry whose corporate programs have achieved national award-winning success. As an educator, presenter and coach, Leah helps people talk with people.

Twitter:  @StaffLeah