Confession time. I've been going to the same gym for over a decade yet it's only this year that I felt brave enough to work out in the room with the heavier weights that's occupied mostly by men. It's an area that resounds to the noise of grunts as mega weights are lifted and thuds as they hit the floor. While there's no 'men only' sign, I've always felt that as a woman I'd look out of place. Yet it was all in my head - when I finally walked in there I wondered what had been keeping me out all these years. It soon felt as comfortable as any other place in the gym and I didn't rate a second glance – everyone was busy with their own routine.
But working out in the weights room is only one gender barrier that can exist in the gym. For many women the idea of exercising in any part of a gym with men is a turn off - that's why there are so many women-only gyms.
Earlier this year Caitlin Reid, a Sydney-based exercise physiologist and dietitian, began offering all-women exercise sessions at her studio Health and the City because she'd encountered so many women who felt uncomfortable in mixed gyms.
"For women who've been going to mixed gyms since their 20s or 30s and for whom fitness is important, mixed gyms are usually comfortable places. But it can be a problem for women whose main focus is weight loss and who are concerned about how they look," she says. "Women worry too much about what other people think of them. Some women feel embarrassed about how they look when they exercise – they're red in the face and they're perspiring and they feel it's not a feminine thing."
A recent poll of 1450 women aged over 30 by the British mental health charity Mind bears this out. Two out of three women said they felt self-conscious about their body shape when they exercised in public, while 60 per cent were uncomfortable about their body's reactions to exercise – like sweating and flushing.
"There's also a group of women in the 50 to 60 age group who are trying gyms for the first time often because they want to lose weight, and for them going to a mixed gym can be harder – they don't know how to use the weights and they're reluctant to ask anyone how to use them because they feel stupid."
"Women do fear people are looking at them," agrees Bianca Richards, National Marketing Manager of the Fernwood Fitness women's gym chain. "Yet this is an illusion – people are concentrating on their own workouts. But I think many women feel less pressure in a women's gym, more able to be themselves and not have to wear their best Nike clothes."
Are there advantages to working out in a mixed gym rather than a women's gym? When men work out they're more competitive so it may be there's a certain vibe in a mixed gym that might make it more motivating for some women, Caitlin Reid says.
"The most important thing is to find the exercise environment that suits us best – and it doesn't even have to be a gym. You don't have to use fancy equipment to get fit. "
But if you do want to try the gym, the quickest way to overcome self-consciousness is having confidence in what you're doing. None of us are born knowing how to use gym equipment so the smart thing is to get instructions from staff or a personal trainer pronto, rather than fumbling around, uncertain what to do – and risking injury.
And don't be ashamed of sweat - it's a badge of honour not shame.
If you're a woman who goes to a gym, how do you feel about this?