Do You Avoid Working Out Because of Exercise Anxiety?

For those of us who have dealt with serious obesity, the thought of trying to exercise can be intimidating. I avoided physical activity in general for a long, long time. I had a sense of anxiety about working out even before Biggest Loser started making people believe that you were a failure unless you pushed yourself in the gym until you threw up or passed out. Several of the folks I’ve worked with have experienced that sense of anxiety so we find ways to take it step by step to get started.

I believe we all deserve to learn from experience. Trying to change our lives with mindgames or inspirational sayings doesn’t really get us very far. Only through experience can we discover and determine what will or won’t work. It only makes sense—if you don’t like something or you don’t experience positive results, you won’t be doing it for long! It’s time to stop feeling like failures because we can’t do everything other people think we should!

The best approach is to focus on building a habit first. Find what you’d like to do then do it every day, even if it is 30 seconds or a minute of activity. I’ve written many times about the woman who walked to her mailbox and back then drove to a Walmart and walked from bench to bench around the outside of the store. (A doctor had told her to walk two miles!) The first exercise I attempted was using a recumbent stepper. I could go for a minute on that thing! I admit I liked it because it was exercise I could do sitting down! I realize now that I had anxiety about going out walking. At that time, my feet and knees would start to really hurt so I was scared of getting out and experiencing pain and fatigue trying to get back. I like to recommend the High Step because you can use it at home and put it anywhere so you can hold on to something if that makes you more comfortable. Start with the lowest riser if you want, that’s fine. Do whatever works for you just to get started.


I believe in letting a natural process take over. If you do something every day, you’ll start to want to do a little more and a little more. You’ll grow more comfortable and you’ll get used to it. You’ll know when you’re ready to advance a bit more.

I also highly recommend working with a heart rate strap so you’ll know what’s the hardest you can work and when you’ve reached that point. Very often I will notice that I want to stop working but I look at my heart rate and I know I’m not really as tired as I think I am! I recently had the privilege of working with a new client in person to help her learn to connect with her heart rate. She had anxiety about becoming winded because her face would turn red and she’d feel like she was choking. She was also afraid of her heart racing. When we first started working on a stepper, she was a bit distressed at how quickly her breathing and heart rate popped up. We didn’t worry about it! We watched her numbers and she stopped when she reached the point we determined to be her max at that time. She worked at her own pace and soon she was able to feel how her breathing was deeper and smoother at particular numbers on the heart rate display. That gave her the comfort level to keep going. She needed to work toward a level of high exertion and experience that it felt like hard work but not like something was wrong. With me there and keeping an eye on her heart rate, she knew she was OK! We took it slow and steady.

I have now seen many of my clients work to that point when high exertion makes that shift from feeling exhausting to feeling like a challenge and you experience a natural drive to want to push yourself harder. It’s a BIG turning point and the result of improved conditioning. It can take awhile to reach it but you’ll know when you’re there and you’ll know you’ve achieved a significant milestone! I was not able to achieve this until I’d dropped some weight but that was all part of the process my body was going through. I tell my clients not to think they have to kill themselves! Steady, consistent work will get you there in time. Let the natural process guide you. There’s no time limit on this!

After a few weeks, my client was working the stepper really well and feeling a significant difference in her breathing. Still, she felt something I continue to deal with to this day—An odd sense of workout avoidance! I will STILL procrastinate about exercising sometimes even though I know I will feel great once I get started and especially after I’m done. I can’t tell you why this happens! All any of us can do is set our schedule and do our best to stick with it, knowing that we’re doing something we’re comfortable with ourselves. If you truly dread something and you really don’t like it, STOP DOING IT!!

High Stepper

Basic Polar Heart Rate Strap

Folding Stepper



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    • gaby on March 17, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    I really needed to see this. I have always been embarrassed to admit I’m scared to try to exercise. I’m scared to feel really out of breath and I’m scared that it will hurt. I don’t want someone to yell at me that I can do it. Maybe I can’t?

    1. Hi Gaby–I’m so glad you came by! For a long time, I know people would have thought I just didn’t WANT to work out but the truth was, I really, REALLY didn’t like it because it was so difficult. The LAST thing I wanted was some athletic type in gym shorts telling me YOU CAN DO IT!! I was NEVER in the mood for the rah-rah cheer stuff!! It DID hurt in a way for me. Just putting weight on my joints and trying to feel even a little physically coordinated was very difficult for me. I would get SO winded SO fast and then I’d be embarrassed when my face turned red (or PURPLE) and I’d cough and gasp like I was going to die from a level of activity that many other people can do with ease.

      When I used to go downstairs to the gym in my building to use the recumbent stepper, I’d only go in if there weren’t many people. I’d check during the day to see if I could catch it when hardly anyone was around. I want to get ideas out there for getting started at home alone because if I’d known something I could have done for myself, I would have given it a try.

      Please write me anytime. You can talk to me about anything!

  1. This hit a nerve for me. I am terrible about getting exercise. Two years ago, I paid for a whole year at the new YMCA, almost $1,000. I went 1 1/2 times. I like the idea of doing something I’m comfortable with and growing from there. That’s practical advice that I appreciate!

    1. Hi Cat! First of all, I’m SHOCKED the Y cost $1000!!

      I think a lot of people buy things to feel a sense of security that they’re “doing something.” We think something sounds like a good idea for what we “should” do so we go out and spend the money on it and feel like we did something! I certainly did that kind of thing MANY times throughout my life. It’s why 2nd Wind Sports exists and gyms count on making the biggest percentage of their year’s income in the first quarter.

      So why do we intend to exercise and then we don’t? It’s HARD WORK! And when you’re just starting out, it’s even harder. It can be quite difficult to work through that tough period and some people feel a very real anxiety and dread about it. For DECADES I didn’t get past it. Exercise to me meant stress and feeling my limitations. It took deciding that dammit if I could do a minute on that stepper sitting down, OK fine I’M DOING A MINUTE! But I started doing that minute more days than I didn’t and then I was doing more minutes. When I started to walk, I followed bus routes so I could get on the bus to come home, even if it was two stops.

      I think a lot of people really are looking for a way to get someplace that seems unreachable and if they need a gentle start to get there, let them have it!

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