I was so intimidated the first time I walked into a group exercise class.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I was not what you’d call an athletic child. I was not particularly strong. Or fast. Or coordinated.

I was a reader. I was quiet and analytical and thoughtful. It has always been easy for me to get lost in my own head; to daydream; to imagine. Being present and confident in my physical body has been a tougher assignment. I once missed my whole part in a dance recital because I was sitting on my lily-pad in my little tutu, staring out into space.

I was an indoor kid, introverted and shy. And the things I liked, the things I was good at, weren’t the things that were valued culturally. And they sure weren’t valued in P.E. class. It didn’t take many failures at the rope climb, or last place finishes in races for me to get the message that physical activity was not for me. And because I thought I was bad at it, I stopped trying. And because I stopped trying, I never got good at it. It was kind of a vicious cycle.

I say all of this only to make it clear that walking into a group exercise class was not without fear for me, so if you find it scary too you aren’t alone. Even now, with my personal training certification and years of exercising in groups behind me, when I’m heading into a class I still fight the urge to turn right around and go back home to exercise alone.

But the thing is that I get a lot out of group classes (camaraderie, new challenges, fun), so I thought it would be a good idea to write a bit about the strategies I use to cope with the anxiety. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Meet the Instructor. Before signing-up, ask to come by the studio or gym and meet the instructor. Ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable. Let he or she know about any concerns you have. This is not an inconvenience. Any good trainer or teacher will want to meet you in advance too. Their job is to create a safe and effective experience for everyone and they cannot do that if they don’t take the time to get to know you. If they don’t ask you about your exercise history, any injuries or illnesses in your past or present, or about any limitations your physician has placed on your physical activity, do not sign up to work with them. If they seem uninterested or annoyed that you want to meet, find a different instructor.

Show Up Early. Arrive 5-10 minutes early if you can, and re-introduce yourself to the instructor. Remind him or her that you are new and ask them where they’d like you to station yourself for class. Often, instructors want you up front when you’re new so that they can keep an eye on you, check-in with you periodically and assist you with form or modifications if necessary.

Scope Out Your Surroundings and Make an Exit Plan. Another reason to show up early is so that you can get comfortable in your new environment. Find the water fountain so that you can get water when you need to. Identify the exit nearest you so that if you need to take a bathroom break or if you need to leave during class, you know the route.

Know That It’s Okay to Leave Early. No one knows your body better than you do. No one. Not a personal trainer. Not a group fitness instructor. Not the person next to you in class. If you are in pain. If you are physically or emotionally uncomfortable. Leave.

You don’t need to explain yourself. You don’t need to feel guilty. If a class or an exercise feels wrong to you, it’s wrong for you. It doesn’t mean that you failed or that exercise isn’t for you. It just means you need to find something that’s a better fit. That’s all.

Take Breaks. A good instructor will work breaks into the class. But you are the boss of you, so you can take breaks whenever you want, as often as you want. No matter how long you’ve been taking the class, no matter your level of fitness, you decide when you need to stop, rest or have some water.

No responsible instructor will be upset with you for taking a break. They will be relieved that you are listening to your body and will empower you to continue to do so. They want you to have the best possible experience in their class so that you come back again and again.

During the first barre class I took (when I was already a certified trainer and was in pretty good shape), I got about 1/3 of the way in and thought I was going to either pass out or throw-up. So, I walked over to the water fountain, had a drink and took a few minutes to myself to gauge whether or not I thought I could continue. I went back only when I felt ready and I chose the easier modifications for the rest of class. The instructor told me after class that she was glad I’d done that and that I should always do what I need to do to get through the class in a healthy way.

Bring a Buddy. Having a friend with you can be a great way to dial down the fear of doing something new, with a bunch of strangers, in a new place.

Understand that Most People Are Focused on Themselves. One of the things that causes anxiety around exercise is the idea that other people will be watching and judging you. But here’s the thing: most people are so focused on what they’re doing that they aren’t paying any attention to you. Truly. No matter how long they’ve been taking the class, everyone is probably learning something new and worried about doing it right. If you find that someone is looking at you, chances are they aren’t sure whether they’re doing the movement correctly and are looking to you for guidance. I know I’ve done that!

One Last Thing…One day, probably much sooner than you think, you won’t be the “new” person anymore. You’ll walk into class and see an unfamiliar, maybe slightly apprehensive-looking, face in the room. Please introduce yourself. Offer some tips or practical advice based on your experience. Tell them something you love about the class. Be one of the reasons why they have a great first day.

You’ve been that person. You’ve been new. You’ve been intimidated. You can relate.  It’s a powerful thing and something you can use to help others.