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Group fitness classes used to terrify me: How I overcame my fear

I spent my adult life avoiding exercise classes.
/ Source: TODAY

Sunday nights. Parallel parking. Packing. These are all things that give me anxiety. Until recently, group workouts topped the list. The idea of sweating and breathing heavily in front of a bunch of strangers? No, thank you.

But it’s not just that. I’m tragically uncoordinated. For a high school production of the musical "Annie," I needed a dance tutor. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that I can't clap to the beat.

And so I spent my whole adult life making up excuses for why I couldn’t attend yoga, barre or boot camp in the park. Don’t even get me started on Zumba.

“Give it a try,” my friends would say. “The first class is free!"

I didn’t care if they were handing out bricks of gold at the first class. I wasn’t going. I was petrified of being the least fit person in the room. And what if there was complicated choreography? I didn't even know how to do a proper pushup.

My little home gym was safe. I had everything I needed — or so I thought.

Out of nowhere, I started experiencing fitness burnout from doing the same things over and over again in a dark basement. Suddenly the sight of my treadmill and pile of free weights filled me with dread.

It was around that time that a friend asked me if I wanted to join a group class led by a strength and conditioning coach named Liza Duddy. They were looking for one more person. Was I interested? Much to my own surprise, I said yes.

I didn’t sleep very well the night before and considered canceling that morning.

I’m so glad I didn’t.

My workout crew (from left): me, Jessica Cooper, coach Liza Duddy, Liz Condon and Jenn Spencer.
My workout crew (from left): me, Jessica Cooper, coach Liza Duddy, Liz Condon and Jenn Spencer. Courtesy Eliza Duddy

I can't believe I am saying this, but working out with a crowd is fun. It’s energizing. The group dynamic pushes you to try harder and you're always learning something new. But my biggest realization is that no one cares what you look like. Everyone is just focusing on themselves.

Kevin Chapman, a licensed psychologist and anxiety specialist in Louisville, Kentucky, has treated plenty of people like me.

“Exercise anxiety is form of social anxiety,” Chapman told TODAY Health. “It’s anxiety about being observed by other people in the capacity of working out.”

In most cases, Chapman recommends exposure therapy, which involves directly facing the feared situation in real life. That's what I did, and I can tell you that it works wonders.

Doing an abdominal workout.
Doing an abdominal workout.Courtesy Eliza Duddy

“Visiting a gym in advance is helpful because it gets rid of all these preconceived notions like, ‘Everyone is going to be buff,'" he said. It's also a good idea to check out a few places and find a space that feels comfortable.

Before your first group class, Chapman suggests repeating mantras such as, “this too shall pass,” and “being uncomfortable is tolerable.”

“And know that no one, besides the instructor who is there to help, is paying attention to you,” Chapman said. “They’re all paying attention to their own appearance and regime.”

Stretching with the group.
Stretching with the group. Courtesy Eliza Duddy

Since joining a group workout class, I have learned how to do pushups, proper squats and all sorts of abdominal exercises. I always drive home feeling accomplished. Not just because I did 30 lunges in a row, but because I overcame a fear that has plagued me for so long.

I am by far the clumsiest person in the group. I recently tried a CrossFit class and I needed a million modifications. None of that matters. What matters is that I show up and I keep trying. I'm getting stronger physically — and mentally. I've also met some terrific people in the process. Chapman explained that I’ve retrained my brain to curb negative thoughts related to exercise. He’s right about that.

But I’m still not trying Zumba.