Fight the fear and work out

Last week, I tweeted about going to the gym. Weirdly, I was pretty damn excited about it. I used to go a lot, but my health put paid to that. As I make progress, I’m trying to build up my exercise. Here’s what happened.

I originally wrote this for the Nelson Mail, so it’s slightly different from my usual blogging style, but then I decided to do my column on something else, so I thought I’d publish it here.



As I’m putting on my gym pants, I realise my hands are shaking. I’m not sure if it’s my usual exhaustion, or my intense anxiety about what I’m about to do.

I’m at Riverside pool. I come here every week to swim, but I’ve never used the gym facilities. I haven’t been to a gym since before I got sick, three years ago. My last membership ended in me continuing the weekly payments because I was too afraid to go, and too afraid to cancel it.

“Gymphobia” is, apparently, a real thing. A survey of 500 New Zealanders had 32 per cent of respondents admitting they were afraid of going to the gym. The main reason was risk of injury, but 41 per cent of women said they were “scared of looking silly in front of others.”

There’s few things more reassuring than discovering a fear you thought was a bizarre quirk of your own is widely shared.

My gymphobia is more than looking silly. I’m afraid I’ll overdo it and hurt myself or faint (both of these have happened before, and are now more likely than ever). I’m afraid I could break a bone. I’m afraid I’ll have a sudden stomach reaction with disastrous consequences.

I’m lacing up my shoes. It’s pretty hard to do – I haven’t been able to bend down that far in a while. My faithful old Nikes appeared surprised to be dragged out of the back of the closet. I had to buy new yoga pants that were suitable for actually wearing out of the house.

According to clinical psychologist Bernadette Bridgewater, the key to overcoming gymphobia is graded exposure. So I’m starting with meeting a personal trainer, and I’ve dragged my flatmate along for moral support.

We make our way into the weights room. I’m starting to sweat already just looking at the machines.

We sit down with John the trainer and I explain my situation. I readily admit I’m unfit – my illness hasn’t left much room for exercise in the past couple of years. My shoulders, spine, and pelvis are aching and fragile. My energy levels are untrustworthy.

“But I’m on a new drug!” I explain excitedly. “I’ve got more mobility – I used to have to have a walking stick all the time. I’ve got more energy and flexibility. I’m really keen to get back into things.”

We go through my goals. I’m seeing a psychologist who specialises in pain management. She demands an hour of exercise a day. One of the main symptoms of Ankylosing Spondylitis is the slow fusion of your spine. Much of my pain is in my sacrum. It’s very important I keep as much flexibility up in this area as possible, to loosen the muscles, reduce pain, and slow the progress of the disease.

John seems onto it. He’s listening and nodding and writing, and he’s got a reassuring list of degrees after his name.

“I’m not going to throw you into the deep end here,” he says, and I breathe a sigh of relief. “The trick is to start slow. We don’t want to aggravate where you’re already inflamed. We just want to move it gently.”

Gentle sounds good to me.

With my flatmate watching, we go through a series of exercises.’ Clam shells’ on the floor, ‘Zeus pulls’ using one of the machines, something involving moving a medicine ball from the floor to above my head.

Everything focuses on opening my chest and twisting my hips. It feels good. I’m confident enough with John beside me, demonstrating, setting up the equipment, correcting each movement. I’m feeling pretty weak by the end of it, but I’m excited too.

John recommends going through the programme a couple times a week and following it up with some time in the pool.

Optimistic, I return alone two days later. It takes a good fifteen minutes to get myself out of my work clothes and into the gym gear. My heartbeat is up. I’m already tired. The whole thing seems ridiculous. I have arthritis. What am I doing here? But I’m in my Nikes, there’s no turning back.

I approach the glass door to the gym and turn the handle. It’s the wrong door. It’s locked and I smack into it. Everyone inside sees. We’re off to a good start.

I pick up my programme. John’s detailed my exercises in clear, concise handwriting. I can’t remember what half of it means but I muddle my way through. I could ask the extremely fit-looking woman behind the desk for help but I would rather eat the programme than admit ignorance.

It’s agonising. My back hurts. I sweat. I forget how to set up the machines. I get in people’s way when I try to pick up equipment.

I’m so relieved when it’s time for the swimming bit, I almost run out into the pool. Four laps later I feel like I’m going to pass out and end up just bobbing around in the shallows. I imagine I look something like a drowning rat.

I am exhausted and triumphant. I am high on endorphins and vowing to return the next day.

It’s been a week. My back protested much more than I expected, and I’ve only been able to swim. I’ve glanced through the glass doors into the gym and gritted my teeth every time.

In response to the research, a network of fitness clubs has developed therapy classes to combat gymphobia, being rolled out this winter.

Now if I only I could get myself to sign up.



It’s now been a week and a half. I’ve managed swimming but nothing else. I’ve been in a lot more pain than usual, and I went to the doctor yesterday to investigate. It turns out I’m having a “flare” – a major inflammatory reaction. Sometimes flares just happen. Often it takes food, or a medication change – or exercise – to set it off. I guess my body wasn’t quite ready for clam shells and Zeus pulls.

I’m really frustrated. I was super keen to get back to working out. Despite my terror – maybe partly because of it – it gives me such a high. But, for now, swimming and yoga will have to be enough. And I have to remind myself that even that is huge progress. A few months ago I couldn’t do either of those things, not in the slightest.

So, Humira seems to be helping. And I’m optimistic.

Now I wonder if gymphobia classes are coming in Nelson?

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