Retro exercise class
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Overcoming exercise-class imposter syndrome

Rachael Sigee was so worried of looking like a fool and letting down her fellow gym-goers that exercise became a chore. Finally the penny finally dropped

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By Rachael Sigee on

Last week, I arrived to a barre class a few minutes late and had to politely ask two very accommodating women to shuffle along so I could squeeze in. I’d missed the introduction, so three separate times I had to comedy-creep across the room to collect bits of equipment without disturbing the rest of the class.

And the end to this killer anecdote? The sky did not fall in. I did not get labelled an Exercise Outcast, nor did the Shame Nun from Game Of Thrones follow me home, tolling her shaming bell because I had ruined it for everyone.

A year ago, that misdemeanor would have left me crippled with shame, thighs shaking not from isometric bum lifts but from the suffocating sense that I had a bloody cheek to be there in the first place.

Exercising in a group is daunting. It’s bad enough being passed while out jogging alone – a class can feel like people have been explicitly gathered to witness our ritual humiliation.

Research from the British Heart Foundation shows that a third of women feel intimidated by competitive peers at the gym and when Sport England launched the This Girl Can campaign it was after finding that the biggest concern of the 75 per cent of women who wanted to exercise more was fear of judgement. We are terrified of being called out for not having the right body shape of course, because why would the gym be any different to the rest of the world? But we’re also nervous about not being good enough, not knowing what we’re doing and not keeping up.

Joan Murphy, founder of Frame gyms, says people are apprehensive because they don’t know what to expect: “They doubt themselves and their ability or coordination; they may be getting back to fitness and not feeling too confident. Classes are a way to get motivated with the help of expert instructors – you just have to turn up and they will guide the way, no wasting time trying to navigate around a gym floor. You feed off the energy of others.”

But the things that appealed to me about fitness classes – being told what to do, paying up front so I can’t make excuses, learning from an expert – were being outweighed by pre-emptive embarrassment. Instead of fitness or wellbeing, my primary goal when attending exercise classes was not to look like an arse.

However much I knew that the instructor wasn’t realistically going to ask me to leave because I was an embarrassment to the very nature of physical exertion, the unease wouldn’t budge

However much I knew that no one would really be looking (or laughing) at me, or that the instructor wasn’t realistically going to ask me to leave because I was an embarrassment to the very nature of physical exertion, the unease wouldn’t budge.

So, I decided to tackle my fitness class fears as if it were any other kind of anxiety: pre-planning and baby steps.

Instead of the recommended three basic reformer Pilates classes, I took six. It took me three years of hatha and yin yoga, peering in at dynamic classes, before I tried my first ashtanga practice. I went to short lunchtime versions of classes to see if I could hack a half hour before committing to 60 minutes. To use a sporting metaphor, you do not need to jump in at the deep end.

I started going at weird times of day, ones that wouldn’t fit in with my normal schedule. If things went wrong and I tripped, tragically crushing my right boob under a kettlebell, I really wouldn’t see any of these people again.

Most importantly, I diversified. After my first spinning class, where my foot came out of the pedal three times and a woman had to dismount to help me each and every awful time, I very much did not get back on the bike. I accepted that spinning wasn’t my jam and moved on to the next discipline.

I shopped around instructors, working out what I liked (ex-dancers and gently encouraging Australian accents) and what I didn’t (“experimental” Pilates teachers and show-off yogies).

Sometimes I went back to them time and time again. Sometimes I just didn’t feel the spark. Either way, I began to banish the spectre of shame at not executing every move perfectly and realise that if I had booked into a class, I deserved to be there as much as anyone else.

I had been consumed with being left red-faced by exercise for all the wrong reasons. It’s fine not to be good at something you’ve never tried before. It’s fine to get tangled in TRX suspension ropes and have to be freed by the instructor. And it’s even more fine to move past that spinning-class incident and never go back. Apprehension is understandable, but it’s not insurmountable.

I’m even considering trying aerial yoga, which, frankly, is just asking for a total loss of dignity.


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