10 Fitness Tips for Introverts Who Hate Crowded Gyms

You know you should work out. You want to work out. In fact, you like most things about it: the sweat, the cute exercise gear, the post-exercise euphoria.

Everything, that is, except for the people.

Whether they’re at a crowded gym, in a group fitness class or even a walk around the neighborhood, most workouts involve some type of contact with humans. If you’re an extrovert, that’s probably a perk. But if you’re an introvert who struggles with some degree of shyness or social anxiety, the prospect of rubbing elbows with other exercisers might feel like enough of an excuse to abandon your ambitions altogether.

What exactly is an introvert? According to Healthline, it’s a person who "is often thought of as a quiet, reserved, and thoughtful individual. They don’t seek out special attention or social engagements, as these events can leave introverts feeling exhausted and drained."

But that doesn’t mean they can’t crush their fitness goals. The key, says weight-loss therapist Dr. Candice Seti, is to go about it in the right way. "Introverts and extroverts get motivation in very different ways, so when it comes to habit change, their approach needs to be different," she explains. "This is especially true for weight loss and health and wellness goals."

For extroverts, Dr. Seti says the most effective approach is to utilize social connections, groups and more public and interactive methods. For introverts, a successful approach might be based on personal tracking, goal-setting, mini milestones and one-one-one interaction. "Introverts generally get more motivation internally than they do from the external world," she notes. "This can actually be a huge advantage, since external motivation is something you can’t control and is not very consistent."

Looking for an exercise routine that’s not all talk? Before embarking on your fitness journey, explore these tips to help keep you calm, comfortable and focused on your goals.

1. Start in your comfort zone, then slowly expand.

Dr. Kristin Bianchi, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety, recommends starting with a type of exercise that’s familiar to you and that you’ve already done with or around other people. "Once you’ve gotten acclimated to doing that particular activity—whether it’s running on a treadmill or hitting the elliptical—gradually challenge yourself to try less familiar, more socially challenging fitness activities, such as running with a couple of friends," Dr. Bianchi suggests. If you’re new to exercise, start slow with a simple, non-intimidating activity like walking or stretching.

Another strategy she recommends for overcoming any kind of anxiety is to create a "ladder" of exercises ranging from least intimidating to most intimidating, then work your way up that ladder little by little. As you gradually expose yourself to more intimidating activities, your discomfort will likely start to dissipate.

"You’ll also discover that the outcome you most feared (like doing so poorly in Zumba class that the instructor asks you to leave) doesn’t happen, and even if an undesired outcome (like tripping on a shoelace and falling in front of the group) does happen, you’ll be able to handle it better than your anxiety predicted," she says.

2. Ask yourself the "five-five-five" question.

If you happen to have an uncomfortable social encounter in a fitness setting—something that is bound to happen at some point—Dr. Bianchi suggests applying the "five-five-five" question to put the experience into proper perspective.

Here’s how it works: Ask yourself, how likely it is (0 to -100 percent) that the other person will remember the encounter in five hours, five days or five weeks. "Accept that although we can’t really know the answers to those questions, we can reasonably speculate that it’s highly unlikely that an embarrassing gaffe will linger in someone else’s memory to the degree that it does our own," she points out.

Still skeptical? Test it out: Ask yourself how many of other people’s "gym mistakes" you remember from today, from five days ago and from five weeks ago. "This technique can help us look at awkward fitness encounters through a more balanced and rational lens, which can help us to disengage from dwelling on them and to continue pursuing our fitness goals," says Dr. Bianchi.          

3. Remember the "spotlight effect."

Ask any introvert what scares them about exercising in public, and he or she will likely mention being self-conscious and worrying that other people are watching and judging them. To overcome this assumption, Itamar Shatz, a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University, says to remember what he calls the "spotlight effect."

"Simply put, the spotlight effect is a cognitive bias that causes us to assume that others are paying attention to small things that we do, even when that's not the case," he explains. "We experience the spotlight effect because we are so used to seeing things from our own perspective, which is naturally focused on ourselves."

Remembering the spotlight effect when you show up to exercise can help you internalize the fact that people probably aren't actually paying much attention to what you're doing, since they're mostly focused on themselves and their own workout.

4. Create "bravery statements."

Dr. Bianchi has her patients create their own "bravery statements"—sort of like mantras to boost their courage and resilience. By committing those lines to memory, they can use them whenever there is nervousness in any social situation, including exercising in public. A couple of popular examples are "Courage isn’t how I feel; it’s what I do" and "I am stronger than my awkward."

"When we shift the focus away from our anxiety—which is a temporary set of feelings—and onto our traits and actions, we develop a stronger sense of agency and perceive ourselves as capable of managing socially challenging situations," she notes.

5. Focus on short workouts.

Introverts tend to become tired after being active and exposed to external stimulation for a long period of time, causing them to mentally and physically shut down, fitness expert Kaitlin Cooper with Simple Fitness Hub explains. Because of this, Cooper suggests focusing on short, high-impact workouts at first.

"A 30-minute [high-intensity interval training] session allows you to stay focused on one type of exercise (introverts also excel when homing in on a specific thing) and it's also a great way to break a sweat in a short period of time," she points out.

6. Hit the gym during off-peak hours.

Cooper advises her more reserved clients to avoid the gym during peak hours (typically two to three hours before and after the workday) and to schedule their workout sessions when the space is less crowded.

"Not only will this help with social anxiety since fewer people are there, but it will also allow you to try out machines and equipment that are generally in use during the busier hours," she says.

If you do wind up at the gym during a busier time, try to choose a treadmill, elliptical or weight machine at the end of a row, so you won’t be surrounded by people on all sides. Wearing earbuds is always a great way to detract any well-meaning small talkers, as well.

7. Sign up for a class.

This may seem counterintuitive, but psychotherapist Patti Sabla, L.C.S.W., recommends that introverts sign up for a fitness class focused on an activity they enjoy. "Many indoor classes are held in dim rooms with the lights turned down low, which can provide a sense of anonymity," she explains.

Indoor cycling and yoga, in particular, are typically suited to shy or reserved exercisers. With both pursuits, you will have your own designated, personal space—a stationary bike or a yoga mat—so there’s no uncertainty about where to go or what to do. There is also usually music playing or a strict meditation policy, which helps reduce the awkwardness of forced (or no) small talk.

Sabla recommends that introverts avoid high-intensity workout classes, at least at first. These types of classes are often held in brightly lit rooms with mirrors, blaring music and sometimes loud instructors, which can result in sensory overload and distract from the actual workout.

8. Have a plan.

Dave Bowden, the founder of Irreverent Gent, says it’s essential to show up to your workout with a clear idea of what you plan to do. "Nothing makes a newbie stand out faster—and attract more unwanted attention—than wandering around the gym randomly, unsure of which equipment they should use, never mind how to use it," he notes.

Before even stepping step foot in a gym, Bowden recommends doing some research and putting together a simple, step-by-step workout plan. Going in armed with a "to-do list" will give you something to focus on, rather than worrying about people noticing your nervousness.

"When you stay focused on executing your workout plan, you’ll ask questions like, ‘How many reps should I do on this next move?’ instead of ‘How many people are watching?’" Bowden says.

9. Splurge on a session with a personal trainer.

Many introverts avoid the gym because they assume all eyes will be on them, which can make for a scary and overwhelming experience. To prevent that, Sabla recommends scheduling a private session with a personal trainer when starting at a new facility.

"Being accompanied by a trainer can take the focus off you, and you are no longer facing the scary iron jungle alone," she notes. Use the session to learn how to operate the machines you’re interested in so, on your next visit, you can use them confidently without risk of embarrassment.

10. Find a "fit friend."

Although your first instinct might be to shy away from training companions, experts agree that you’ll likely feel more comfortable if you have a workout buddy by your side when striking out on a new fitness journey. Not only will you feel less anxious entering the exercise session, but you’ll also have an accountability partner to help keep you motivated and on track.

"Reach out to a friend you trust and propose becoming ‘fit friends,'" suggests wellness coach Tangia Renee Estrada. "You don't necessarily have to go to a gym. Compare schedules and find a couple of times a week to meet up and get sweaty. This might be running stairs at a local spot, going on a hike or taking a brisk walk."

You don’t have to be an extrovert to embrace an active lifestyle. With some smart strategies and adjustments, you can learn to embrace a regular fitness routine that meshes with your personality and allows you to burn off the anxiety right along with the calories.