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Inner Peas: Overcoming gymtimidation, positive impact of regular exercise on mental health

(Michelle Fu/Daily Bruin)

By Kayleigh Ruller

Feb. 26, 2019 4:33 p.m.

Late-night coffee sessions and a constantly looming sense of stress may seem synonymous with the college lifestyle – but it doesn’t have to be that way. In her series Inner Peas, Daily Bruin contributor Kayleigh Ruller will explore different ways students can easily practice various wellness tactics in their busy day-to-day lives.

Enter Bruin Fitness Center, and you’ll find clusters of confident weightlifters dispersed among pockets of timid treadmill walkers.

The decision to head to the gym can be intimidating when you feel like a conspicuous newbie in a sea of focused students who seem to know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it. Some people may find themselves doing their exercises tucked behind quiet corners to avoid drawing attention or in front of stuffy mirrors to be seen by many — but working out and choosing where to do that shouldn’t be nearly as treacherous as we make it out to be.

Finding your space within the often polarized sections of the gym is intimidating, but overcoming the insecurities, mental blocks and self-doubts of gym life are attainable goals just as rewarding as the physical benefits themselves.

“Gymtimidation” is the fear of going to the gym, or wherever a physical activity is occurring, that hinders worthy exercisers from achieving their goals. For many of us, gymtimidation can surface as a result of the comparison between body types and exercise styles, avoiding the gym as a whole or just feeling a decreased sense of confidence at the gym.

Jenna Signorelli, a first-year psychology student, said her sense of confidence is particularly altered when she moves from the treadmills to the weight-lifting portion of her exercise routine.

“The weight section is intimidating because it is primarily occupied by men,” Signorelli said. “I feel out of place when I want to work out near the mirrors and weights because I definitely feel like I stand out as one of the few girls on that side of B-Fit.”

For Signorelli, the different areas of the gym have become gendered as fit and experienced males congregate near the mirrors and squat racks, often sparking feelings of intimidation for many first-timers, females or groups of students who may lack a sense of belonging at the gym.

According to a 2017 study with Queen’s University in Canada, gyms are sites where gendered inequities emerge due to the disparities in physical activity. As a place where gender can influence exercise and perpetuate previously embodied gender ideals, gyms must be the next target for transformative interventions to de-structure the disparities within the space.

While Signorelli’s and other students’ discomfort may stem from the divided nature of the space, it is important to remind yourself that the gym is meant to be an all-inclusive space for people of all genders, sizes and colors. By simply being there, bringing your workout into a space of the predominant sex, and deconstructing the stereotype of strength workouts as traditionally male or cardio workouts as traditionally female, you are defying both gym boundaries and “gymtimidation,” taking charge of your workout.

In addition to harnessing feelings that make you feel like you don’t belong, the gym may also be a breeding ground for comparison, especially for the college students who are transitioning through new stresses, social environments, mental health and academics.

Comparing oneself to others can be a massive detriment to mental health, but regular exercise itself can also help improve one’s mental health because it has a positive impact on serotonin levels.

Maia Rodriguez-Choi, a veteran marathon runner and first-year human biology and society student, said while comparison and assumptions may be an easy fallback, it’s important to refrain from assuming where anyone is in their fitness journey.

“We have to remind ourselves that we’re all at different starting points and we all may have different intentions for exercising our bodies. We can’t make judgments about why other people are there, and instead just focus on our own practice,” said Rodriguez-Choi.

One method of tackling these comparisons and fears is seeking social support to find the endorphic rush that keeps you quite literally running to the gym. Finding a new or old friend who can accompany and encourage you during your workout fosters a sense of accountability and moral support, and is, in fact, the preferred workout method for most university students. Bringing a friend may allow you to focus on the teamwork, motivation and accountability aspects of exercise, turning comparison into fun, friendly competition.

Furthermore, a solution to overcoming the mental blocks when it comes to exercise can be found in shifting your perspective from one of comparison and unworthiness to one of honoring your body and understanding that exercise is for your individual physical well-being, health and clarity of mind.

In an interview with Brit + Co, personal trainer Jennifer Giamo recommends altering the perspective on exercise to one of “me time,” and in doing so, you begin to appreciate what your body can do for you. Gratitude for our bodies’ capabilities becomes an extremely powerful motivator.

Alongside seeing visiting the gym as a form of self-care, you can see it in new eyes as a form of preventive medicine that decreases daily fatigue, improves cardiovascular health, and enhances the function of the hippocampus, boosting memory and mental function. When regarding exercise from a perspective of its benefits in the long run instead of the difficulties in the short term, we find a valid reminder to honor our bodies at the gym.

However, there are other endorphin-boosting alternatives to working out at B-Fit or the John Wooden Center at UCLA. Sunny – well, for the most part – Westwood is in a prime location for runs, hikes and outdoor spaces you may feel more energized and comfortable in.

[RELATED: The Quad: Recommendations for running routes in Westwood and West LA]

In fact, finding a space to exercise in that doesn’t distract you, but rather comforts you, is key to maintaining regular, functional workouts and therefore, improved self-confidence and motivation.

Second-year molecular cell and developmental biology student and club track runner Lindsay Hewitt finds her own space on the track during her run.

“When I’m running, I’m in my comfort zone,” Hewitt said. I’m not comparing myself and I find my niche where I can feel confident and comfortable, without needing to look around and see if people are judging me.”

By implementing physical changes that allow you to find this comfort zone such as new workout clothes, fun music or group workout classes like John Wooden Center’s GroupX classes or drop-in yoga classes on the Hill, working out can become an activity you actively look forward to rather than shy away from.

Ultimately, a healthy lifestyle doesn’t require daily gym sessions, but rather that you partake in activities that make you sweat and find a moderate balance between exercising, healthy eating and sleep.

By implementing moments of mindful, enjoyable movement, whether that be at the gym, studio or track, you give your body a rush of happy endorphins, which can help prevent long-term depression and most importantly, foster a regular and effective form of self-confidence.

With a newfound appreciation for endorphins, friends and your body during exercise, walking into B-Fit may no longer be a looming threat. Stepping foot into a space crowded with runners, lifters and stretchers alike is a reminder of your own powerful ability to foster sustainable and impactful self-confidence.

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Kayleigh Ruller
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