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Health

Comfort Level is Key to Workout

Glenda Griffen is like a lot of Americans who need to lose some weight - the gym scares her.

"I went a few times," said the 55-year-old Detroiter who wants to lose 70 pounds, "and didn't like it."

In fact, the hair stylist is so gym-averse that she's spent hundreds of dollars purchasing exercise equipment, trying to build her own home gym. She owns a treadmill, a Trim Rider, a body glider machine, a rowing machine, an Ab Lounger, a mini trampoline and several exercise balls.

None of those provided the quick fix she was hoping for. But she still doesn't want a gym membership.

"I'm very self-conscious about my weight, and I know I should be doing something about it," said Griffen, who is 230 pounds and 4-foot-11. "I just always feel someone staring at me at the gym."

Griffen is hardly alone. As people seek to keep New Year's resolutions to lose weight, many have to deal with gym intimidation.

A November study conducted by researchers at the George Washington University Medical Center found that many overweight people are embarrassed to exercise, and they are particularly intimidated by working out around young people and those who are physically fit.

Another study done at Temple University in 2007 found that overweight females in particular reported that emotional barriers such as feeling self-conscious or fearing failure prevented them from exercising.

And it's not just heavier people who feel it.

Carla Groh, a 57-year-old University of Detroit Mercy professor who enjoys mountain biking, understands the fear after enrolling in a yoga class through the YMCA.

"It's intimidating," said Groh, who teaches graduate research and leadership management at the McAuley School of Nursing. "All the other people are so much better. They're standing on their heads, and I can't get up off the ground."

Groh thinks part of the solution is to find places where people can work out with others like them.

She came to that conclusion while co leading a study that puts overweight African-American women through 12 weeks of exercise as well as nutrition lectures and group scripture readings. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Michigan funded the study.

"They're all in the same boat, and it's really powerful," Groh said.

"For the more overweight or obese, it seems it is more helpful for them to find a group of like-minded and like-shaped people who can really support each other."

Griffen took part in the study. Her session ended in November. The twice-weekly workouts, led by former Detroit Lion Ernie Clark and featuring chair-based exercises, helped her lose 35 pounds without stepping foot in a gym.

"I loved it," she said. "It was private. Just 15 of us, and we all had the same issues - overweight, high blood pressure, diabetes."

Some gyms do offer similar isolation. The chain Curves, for instance, is open only to women. Most gyms permit free tours before joining and Groh said that can help alleviate fears about how to use equipment or allow people opportunities to ask about gym etiquette.

"People need to be thoughtful about where they join because they have to feel comfortable," Groh said. "Another idea is to get a friend - or a couple of friends - to sign up with you."

But Griffen said she's still not ready.

"I have talked to girlfriends, and they have the same fear I do," Griffen said. "It's even what to wear. You go in there and you've got on these not-so-nice outfits. Everyone else has put on skin tight workout pants and little tops. That's something we should get over, the fear that somebody is watching us. But it's hard."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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