Why Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine for Gym Anxiety, According to a Comedian and a Happiness Expert

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In theory, fitness is meant to be fun. But while endorphins are great and moving our bodies is a privilege, hearing that you’re supposed to enjoy something that you secretly hate isn’t exactly helpful advice. In fact, it can make you feel pretty shitty.

This is all too familiar for comedian Hannah Berner, who’s spent the last several years navigating what she calls “a complicated relationship with fitness.” After playing competitive tennis through college, she struggled to find the joy that once came along with exercise.

“I was on a full scholarship and there was a lot of pressure and fear around it that made me fall out of love with working out,” she says. “I was honestly traumatized from college athletics, but now I’ve gotten this new relationship with fitness where I’ve realized that it’s an act of self-love that can really help with so many different aspects of my life.”

Experts In This Article

The trick behind this mindset shift? Stop taking it all so dang seriously.


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Gymtimidation is real

Gyms, by nature, can be stressful spaces. A survey done by UK brand Hunkemoller found that more than a quarter of women deal with anxiety around working out, and cite a lack of knowledge about form, an overall feeling of discomfort, and a fear of being stared at as the top reasons why.

“I think gyms can be so intimidating, especially for women,” says Berner. ”You kind of feel like you’re going into a men’s locker room where everyone’s lifting big weights and taking up space, and you’re like, do I even belong here? And if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you feel judged, and there are so many things that could make you scared to work out, all of which are totally valid.”

But for Berner, realizing just how ridiculous it all is has helped her fall back in love with fitness, and inspired her new partnership with Orangetheory (her favorite studio for joy-inducing workouts, where she recently hosted a "WTF is OTF?!?!" comedy event for her fellow gym-goers) As she puts it, when you’re surrounded by hot personal trainers who you’re trying not to fart in front of, watching people run dozens of miles on human hamster wheels treadmills going nowhere, and getting sprayed with sweat by muscley men who are grunting as if their lives depended on it, sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh.

"Especially with fitness, when you’re taking it too seriously and being too hard on yourself, it’s hard to have a healthy, long-term relationship with it."

“Laughter is such a relief… and I think it’s important not to take things too seriously,” says Berner. “Especially with fitness, when you’re taking it too seriously and being too hard on yourself, it’s hard to have a healthy, long-term relationship with it.”

Science agrees: laughing for gym anxiety works

She’s onto something here: According to experts, laughing your way through a workout may be the secret to finding the sort of fun in fitness that everyone’s always talking about.

“Laughter in itself is a stress release,” says Emma Seppälä, PhD, a happiness expert and the author of Sovereign: Reclaim Your Freedom, Energy, and Power in a Time of Distraction, Uncertainty, and Chaos. “When we’re stressed, we become really self-focused and our attention gets really tunnel-visioned, which makes us have more negative emotions. So when you take a step back and change your perspective—which is what laughter does—it can lift you up and out of that narrow-minded place and decrease all of those negative emotions.”

Research has also shown that laughter can boost feel-good hormones like endorphins oxytocin and endorphins, and Seppälä adds that it can make it easier to commit a new skill to memory, which means LOLing can be doubly helpful for anyone trying to learn a fitness modality for the first time.

Obviously, this isn’t to suggest that you mock anyone else in a fitness setting, but rather to encourage you to shift your focus inward and let yourself giggle at the discomfort you may be feeling.

Part of this, Berner says, requires getting over any concerns you have about feeling “cringe” or “embarrassing”—especially at the gym.

“If you’re just living in your own self with all your imperfections, you can’t go wrong,” she says. “Sure, I get nervous about things and want to do things well, but I’m not going to not be myself because it makes other people uncomfortable. The second you care what other people are thinking of you, they win.”

In fairness, that’s a lot more easily said than done, but the key is remembering that no one cares what your workout looks like—for the most part, we’re far too focused on ourselves to worry about what anyone else is doing at the gym. Plus, we’re all in it together: All it takes is for one person to start letting their freak flag fly a fitness class, and the rest of the crew will follow suit.

“It’s never embarrassing to try—it’s embarrassing not to try,” says Berner. “I was at a fitness class recently, and some girl was grunting, and honestly, I respected her so much. It’s refreshing to see people who don’t filter themselves or care how they’re going to be perceived. It’s very confident, and that energy is contagious.”

So do yourself a favor the next time you’re in a gym: Sing along, dance like no one’s watching, and give yourself permission to laugh. It might just make fitness fun, after all.

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