Exercise Class Anxiety Is Real - So Can We Talk About It?
By Daisy Buchanan Posted on 21 Aug 2018
Never disturb another woman’s shavasana. I learned this the hard way when I creeped into a yoga studio over 20 minutes before my class started. The lights were off, the room was silent and I thought I had the perfect opportunity to scuttle into a dark corner and practise my favourite pose, The Cockroach – the one where I find a shadow to lurk in, and do my best to be completely unobtrusive. But someone else had beaten me to it. ‘Your class hasn’t started yet! Get out! How dare you come in here?!’ yelled the teacher. I burst into tears. I felt exactly as awful as I did when I was five, and my old headmaster shouted at me for standing up too soon in assembly. It was worse than wetting your knickers at a sleepover, worse than accidentally being the only person singing Hosannah who throws in an extra ‘Of Kings!’
When I look back at the incident, I realise that we both behaved strangely. That’s not how you speak to people, especially when you’re both in pursuit of inner peace. I should have responded in a calm, adult manner, instead of immediately reverting back to childhood type. Also it’s ludicrous to be almost half an hour early for anything. I had better things to do with my time than sitting in the dark. But exercise classes make me so anxious that I enter an emotionally heightened state before I go in. I become slightly less tough and supple than a roll of Kleenex that has fallen in the toilet.
Millions of us grow up feeling very anxious around exercise. In 2016, the This Girl Can campaign found out that the fear of being judged by others is the biggest factor that holds women back from participating in sport. The researchers found that 36% of the least-active schoolgirls feel as though their body is on show in PE lessons, and that makes them like PE less. During Games lessons I was humiliated by pupils and teachers, and frequently singled out for not trying hard enough when I was desperately trying to do my best. So I stopped trying at all. When I broke my leg when I was 11, before I even registered the pain I was in, I was thinking ‘Brilliant! This has to get me out of PE!’
As an adult, once I’d realised that I’d never again be shouted at by Mr Toyne while attempting an 800 metre waddle, I had a nagging sense that I should do something about my non existent fitness levels. I started going to the gym, and I was stunned when I started enjoying it. Using the Couch to 5K app, I taught myself how to run. I am the first person in my family to run for pleasure, and not because I’m being chased by a large dog. But every time I attempt to attend an exercise class, I’m overwhelmed by anxiety. It doesn’t help that when I’m under pressure I struggle to tell my left from my right. Or that I still think of class instructors as perfect gods and goddesses with the authority to shame me entirely on the grounds of a badly executed burpee. Exercise is supposed to be an activity that helps us to manage and reduce our anxieties. But what do we do when classes cause more problems than they cure?
Psychologist Dr Mandy Deeks explains that people with anxiety ‘tend to have a heightened awareness of their body and are super tuned in to changes to breathing rates, feeling stirred up and sweating’. The conditions caused by any kind of fitness class mimic the early symptoms of a panic attack. My friend Rosie*, a 32 year old PR account manager says ‘My friends are constantly trying to make me come to classes with them, and I’m running out of excuses. A few months ago, someone persuaded me to go to spinning, and as soon as I sat on the bike I looked up at the lights and I couldn’t breathe. I faked a work emergency and hid in the toilet pretending to send emails. I felt so conspicuous and so frightened. I love working out on my own, but I couldn’t bear the idea that I might get something wrong and feel humiliated.’
Rosie’s words strike an uncomfortable chord. Like most ambitious, hard working women in 2018, I don’t allow many margins for error in my life. If I can’t be the best, I’d rather not bother. Rationally, I know that we need to make mistakes and learn from them in order to progress and improve. In my heart, I know that I will never look good doing a downward dog, and that my mountain climbers wouldn’t get me half way up Tellytubby hill. In 2018, you can’t be a have-a-go hero in an exercise class. Once upon a time you could turn up at your friendly local community centre and enlist in the cosy sounding ‘Legs, bums’n’tums’. Now, everything is a boot camp, everything is intense, and everyone else looks like a model in mesh and lycra leggings. I think it’s the Instagram effect. The photo sharing app has revolutionised fitness culture. While there are definitely positive aspects of making exercise both accessible and aspirational, I think many of us feel excluded.
However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from yoga classes, it’s that if something feels difficult and painful on one side of your body, it’s usually balanced out by what you do on the other. So while the internet makes me feel miserable and inadequate about my fitness levels, it also gives me the chance to participate in a class without the judgement of others. I discovered Yoga with Adriene because I thought that having a go at home would prepare me for the terrifying rigours of a real life yoga class. Now, I don’t think I ever want to go to a class again. I benefit from Adriene’s kindness, wisdom and undivided attention. When she says ‘that’s beautiful!’ I glow, even though I know she’s said the same thing to a million people before me. Most importantly, I can relax as I’ve never relaxed before. I can even keep my balance during Warrior pose.
For some people, exercise classes offer accountability. It can be hugely helpful to watch and learn from other people, as well as benefitting from real supervision from a qualified instructor. The Youtube gurus might be gifted fitness experts but they can’t see us from the screen and tell us how to make sure we’re following the instructions correctly and safely. However, many of us have been liberated by Adriene, Kayla, Joe and co.
In 2018, it sometimes feels as though every aspect of our lives is on display, and we’re always being weighed, measured and found wanting. It’s hard enough to cope with that pressure during working hours, and it’s no wonder that increasing numbers of us are streaming YouTube videos and reclaiming fitness as a private hobby. Now that I have accepted that group exercise will always make me anxious, I’ve gained so much by being able to embrace the alternative. Fitness classes give me anxiety so extreme that it feels like stage fright. I feel much healthier in body and mind when I give myself the space to move like nobody’s watching.
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