Uncomfortable at the Gym

By now, you probably don’t need a lecture about the benefits of working out. Going to the gym will put you in a better mood, increase your energy levels, and even help you sleep better at night.

Getting to take advantage of those benefits, though, means having to get over “gymtimidation” first. In addition to fears of being body shamed or “mansplained” to about how the equipment is supposed to work, both men and women face the risk of experiencing sexual harassment at the gym. In some cases, these violations can even occur from the gym staff or a personal trainer, leaving victims even more confused about how to proceed.

So just how uncomfortable are women with working out, and what’s making them feel so stressed about going to the gym? To find out, we surveyed 890 women about their firsthand accounts of what it’s like trying to stay active in the face of unwanted attention and inappropriate advances. Read on as we break down how many women feel uncomfortable working out, how often they experience harassment, and the changes they’ve made to their exercise routines to avoid feeling intimidated or harassed.

Analyzing Gym Discomfort

Even if you’ve planned your workout and know exactly which machines you’ll use, you might still feel uncomfortable when you walk through the gym doors. While a certain level of anxiety may be natural (after all, some equipment can seem unnecessarily complicated), some people have a genuine fear of spending time at the gym.

Nearly 71 percent of women polled admitted to experiencing an interaction at the gym that made them uncomfortable. For people who expect to go to the gym solely for working out, unwanted social advances can be extremely off-putting. Over 90 percent of women said they don’t appreciate being stared at while exercising, and nearly as many don’t enjoy being flirted with.

Regardless of your intentions, the general rule of thumb at the gym might be that silence is best. Nearly 80 percent of women don’t enjoy being talked to while working out, although slightly more than half are comfortable being advised on how to use the gym equipment.

Avoiding Uncomfortable Interactions

Working out at the gym can be a very vulnerable experience. Whether it’s a spin class in a darkened room or a session on the weight floor, it’s not uncommon to feel self-conscious about how you look or who might be watching you. Unfortunately, knowing what to do after you’ve been confronted with an uncomfortable encounter (or even sexual harassment) can feel complicated.

For some women, the simplest option may be to alter their workout routines or to stop going to the gym altogether. Of the nearly 76 percent of women who reported being watched by someone at the gym, almost 72 percent changed their routine to make sure it didn’t happen again. While women were less likely to experience being followed around (nearly 33 percent), sexual harassment (almost 28 percent), or criticisms or comments about their body (nearly 16 percent), these actions were more likely to trigger a change in their workout behaviors.

Getting offenders to stop these unwanted actions can be difficult, so over 82 percent of women who’d been followed around while exercising altered their workout routine as a result. In response, more than half of women who’d been harassed while working out started avoiding certain areas of the gym, and over 41 percent outright spent less time there. For more than 1 in 5 women, these negative experiences caused a moderate to extreme impact on their fitness goals.

Take a Hint

When faced with an uncomfortable situation, 88 percent of women ignored the attention, and almost 83 percent wore headphones. More than 2 in 3 women also changed their facial expressions to be more off-putting (including “resting bitch face”) or wore clothes that covered or hid their body shape.

Compared to fewer than 1 in 4 women who experienced harassment at the gym and reported the issue to staff members, nearly half chose to leave the scene, and 39 percent did nothing about the experience. Less than 8 percent of women opted to confront the culprit privately.

Adjusting Workouts

Considering how often women change their actions to avoid being harassed at the gym (or write how-to guides for men so that they know what proper behavior looks like), it’s possible many gym facilities aren’t doing enough to deter would-be offenders.

Nearly 2 in 3 women opted to work out somewhere else after experiencing an uncomfortable situation at the gym. For nearly 18 percent of women, finding a new location involved working out at home or outside, while roughly 8 percent decided to join a women-only fitness class or a women-only gym. While women may initially join these programs for the gender-exclusivity, many grow to appreciate their dedicated focus and welcoming atmosphere.

For people who can’t afford the boutique workout experience (or who prefer a more well-rounded routine), it’s entirely possible to get all the physical and emotional health benefits of working out without ever actually going to the gym. Working out at home means you don’t have to feel self-conscious about who’s watching you, what you’re wearing, or receiving unwanted attention.

Looking for Help

Not only are co-ed fitness facilities potentially not enforcing a safe environment for women, but also their fellow gymgoers may not be reliable either.

Only 22 percent of women told us someone else intervened during an incident at the gym. While more than half of women said someone intervened on their behalf after they’d experienced physical contact or sexual harassment, fewer had help when they were being flirted with (over 20 percent) or being watched (15 percent).

Women were generally grateful when someone stepped in to defend them against harassment. While they often described situations where men intervened for them, some women said other women defended them and that they appreciated the support.

Find Your Comfort Zone

Making time to work out regularly is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health, but committing to your daily sweat session has plenty of obstacles. After you grapple with finding the time to get to the gym, wade through the conflicting recommendations you see on social media, and finally settle on something to wear, you still have to deal with all the other people at the gym who you have no control over.

A majority of women encountered uncomfortable experiences at the gym and made changes to their own behaviors or routines to subvert harassment or flirtation. Instead of bringing these issues up to the gym staff, most women opted to avoid certain areas of the gym or stop going altogether. While women shouldn’t have to go out of their way to avoid unwanted interactions, many also chose to work out somewhere they could be more comfortable. A lot of women decided to work out at home instead, which can be just as rewarding without nearly as much of the hassle as getting to the gym.

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We surveyed 890 women who ever felt uncomfortable at the gym due to interactions with other people and instances of harassment. Our female gymgoers ranged in age from 18 to 69 years with an average age of 33 and a standard deviation of 9 years. We did not have a validated measure of impact on fitness goals, so we created our own 1-to-5 scale, with 1 “not at all impacted” and 5 “extremely impacted.” This was a purely exploratory study of how prevalent it is for women to feel uncomfortable at the gym and the ways women have changed their fitness routines to counter discomfort.

Fair Use Statement

Thinking about ways to avoid uncomfortable experiences at the gym? Our study shows there are certain changes that are better than others. If you want to share our study with your workout buddy who may be feeling the same way, share this project for noncommercial purposes. Also, we worked really hard to create a great campaign highlighting discomfort at the gym – don’t forget to give us some credit with a link.