‘He followed me home’: The women feeling so intimidated at the gym they’re abandoning it

73 per cent of women have felt uncomfortable at the gym

A new study has revealed nearly three quarters of women have been made to feel uncomfortable whilst at the gym.

Sports nutrition brand DNA Lean surveyed 400 women and found 73 per cent of them have been made to feel uncomfortable whilst working out. The most common problem women found themselves having to deal with was being stared at, with 91 per cent of the women experiencing this. 

But that’s not all – many women are receiving inappropriate comments, touched without consent, filmed without consent and even followed home all because they went to the gym. 

The pandemic hasn’t put a stop to this. Now that gyms are back open women are still unable to get on with their workouts in peace. For a special Tab report I spoke to a number of female uni students about their experiences. They told me they’d been inappropriately touched on their legs, had men joining in on their workouts without invitation and always mansplaining the equipment to them. The constant feeling of unease whilst at the gym has led many women to seek out female only gyms or to abandon the gym all together. 

For many women going to the gym is an essential and enjoyable part of their week. Whether as a way to catch up with friends during a spin class, working on smashing a weight lifting PB or going for a gentle jog to improve your mood. And yet the experience for many is often shrouded in feelings of discomfort, fear and anxiety. 

But it’s not just in the actual gym where women have experienced discomfort surrounding exercise. Often women are catcalled on their way to the gym for their outfits and across TikTok, videos often pop up of men critiquing or making fun of the exercises women do. Women’s anxiety is then already at a high before they’ve even stepped into the gym. And this fear is becoming more evident with the new TikTok trend of shy girl workout plans. The videos made by women for  women are workout plans that involve moving around the gym as little as possible, using one piece of equipment or feature exercises that don’t require entering the free weights area, often the area most populated by men. It’s a sad reality we are constantly having to alter our plans and time in the gym in order to feel safe and comfortable. 

The Tab spoke to a number of students who have felt unsafe during their time at the gym and now are unsure the role the gym will play in their lives. 

20-year-old Megan was followed on her way home from the gym. In her first year Megan regularly frequented the gym however during a particular session she noticed an older man watching her whilst she worked out. “I didn’t take much notice but thought it was a bit weird,” she said. 

Upon leaving the gym, Megan realised the same man was following her. In a move many girls are familiar with, Megan took a number of odd turns towards the bus stop, and found the man still following her. In her realisation of being followed she got on “a random bus to get away from him”. 

Megan is now going into her third year of uni and only now just feeling comfortable to go back to the gym. She said she is “taking it week by week” but it hasn’t helped her when she’s been beeped on the way to the gym. Megan’s story, whilst alarming, is not unique.

Anna was working out in a 24 hour gym just before lockdown last year when she realised a man was recording her. Anna started down the lens of his camera and he “looked awkward, turned bright red and put the phone down, then moved off the machine without using it.” It was clear he was recording her and yet Anna said she would have felt too shy to have confronted him if he hadn’t moved on. Anna said the experience has made her feel she cannot exercise alone and because she lives in a big city exercising outdoors doesn’t feel like a safe option either. 

21-year-old Sophie describes an unsettling experience in which a man at her gym watched her during her sets and came over to her but didn’t say anything. 

She said: “I was in my uni gym in the free weights area and the guy was on the bench in the area next to me, Covid precautions were in place so they were spaced out with tape. He would spend his whole set looking at me (having to fully turn his head because of the direction his bench was facing) and then between sets he would get up and walk over to my little square where my bench was and just look at me or would walk all around my bench but constantly looking at me.”

Sophie said she ended up leaving as “it made me so uncomfortable”. She has continued to go to the gym but now feels “intimidated and nervous going into the free weights section” and usually sticks to the women’s only section of her gym. 

These stories are just a few of the many I received when I asked our female readers for their experiences of feeling unsafe at the gym. And yet despite not doing anything wrong, these women and many others are the ones having to alter their behaviour in order to feel safe and enjoy their time exercising.

Megan now does most of her workouts at home and Anna hardly goes to the gym by herself anymore. 

And it’s not just women noticing it, some men are catching onto the problem too. Ravi Davda used to be a personal trainer before setting up Rockstar Marketing, he told The Tab he would often have female clients work with him as he believed they felt safer having someone with them. 

He said: “A lot of my clients were female. In fact, I’d say 80 per cent or 90 per cent. Why? A lot of them felt uncomfortable in a gym. Especially when going in the free weights section. 

“They all knew that resistance training is good for you, but the majority of them would never do it unless they were with me. I think this is why they paid me – so they’d feel supported in going in there.” Again it is women changing their routines and paying additional costs in order to feel safe. 

An average PT session can cost anything from £30 to £80. It’s no wonder then that women’s only gyms are popping up everywhere. You can exercise without men present and not have to shell out the extra cost for a personal trainer to act as a bodyguard. You only have to go on TikTok and see the hashtag “womensonlygym” with nearly 20 million views to see the desire for a safe space. 

Of course this is not the only reason women’s only gyms exist – for some exercising only around women is important for cultural and religious reasons. 

And so whilst the creation of female specific gyms can be a great thing, when it comes to feeling uncomfortable around men in the gym it is again women’s responsibility to find a new solution to make themselves feel safe. Men are not changing their behaviour and gyms aren’t set up in order for everyone to feel safe. 

Trainer Kate Meier suggests gyms consider how they’re set up with positions of equipment, offer women’s only classes and to give staff training to handle potential problems.

She said: “Most likely, any bigger gym is going to eventually encounter a member that is ‘creeping’ out other members.

“If a woman feels like they are in an uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situation, then they need to know that they can tell the staff and that the staff will act quickly and appropriately.”

Regardless of your reason for going or how often you go, we all deserve to feel safe and comfortable whilst at the gym but this just isn’t the reality for most women. This goes beyond the feeling of gym intimidation in which you feel awkward or embarrassed about the workouts that you’re doing for fear of being judged. Gym intimidation, whilst unpleasant, is an inner battle which people of any gender can experience. Feeling unsafe in the gym as a woman as a result of direct male actions is far too common and needs to change. 

All images via Unsplash 

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Girls share bad experiences of male GPs proving some just don’t understand women’s bodies

Girls share the sexist BS they’ve put up with whilst working behind a bar

Girls are sharing what they’d do if there were no men on Earth for 24 hours