It’s totally normal to compare yourself to others when working out, but it can have a detrimental impact on your mental health and enjoyment.
You’re happily jogging on the treadmill when you glance over at the person beside you and feel a tug of envy at how much further and faster they’re running. It can leave you feeling a bit despondent if you’re someone who can only dream of going at that speed.
It’s super common to compare yourself to others when working out. “As humans, we are creatures of curiosity and community – we want to know what others around us are doing,” explains Dr Josephine Perry, a sport psychologist and author of The Ten Pillars Of Success.
Whether it’s frustration at not being able to lift as heavy as the woman at the squat rack beside you or doubting your cardio capacity as you exhaustedly peddle through a spin class full of smiling cyclists, we worry about where we are in comparison to other people.
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But it’s important to note that everyone compares themselves to other people at some time or another. Whether it’s careers, relationships or finances, we all worry we’re not doing enough or having enough success. But when it comes to fitness, it might not actually be the terrible trait you think it is. That tendency towards comparison may show just how important your regime and your progress is to you.
As with all things, you can have too much of a good thing and whatever its benefits might be in small doses, comparison culture can have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing.
“There can be healthy elements to comparisons, but natural comparison behaviour can become problematic if it increases in frequency and intensity, and negatively impacts our behaviour and mental health,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo.
“We can become deflated, disappointed, self-critical and even begin to engage in self-defeatist behaviours or self-punishment,” Dr Quinn-Cirillo adds. “This can include withdrawing, avoiding the gym altogether or alternatively working even harder and pushing ourselves too far.
“That can form a negative cycle of self-criticism, poor performance and engagement and therefore further self-criticism and low self-worth. This can lead to lowered mood or increased anxiety levels around ability or performance in general.”
5 ways to use comparison culture to your advantage
With those warnings in mind, here’s how to use comparison culture to your advantage at the gym.
Use comparison to understand yourself
While comparison can undoubtedly be a difficult thing to deal with, it can have a positive side. When envy strikes, take a moment to understand why this matters to you.
“When we see what others have achieved, it can prompt us to want the same, or certainly to set our sights higher about what is possible,” Dr Perry says. “We call this ‘vicarious confidence’. Seeing other people who are similar to us achieving things we would like to achieve gives us confidence to go and try it for ourselves.”
Noticing others’ successes can spur you on. You might realise that you too would love to be able to run a certain distance or hold a pose in yoga you currently find challenging. Take the difficult emotions that come with comparing yourself to others and use them as motivation.
Appreciate your uniqueness
Of course, it’s important to remember that we’re all unique, and so someone achieving something you’ve been unable to do isn’t a reflection on your abilities.
“We all come from different backgrounds, have different personality traits, different genetics and body shapes, different training histories and have different goals,” Dr Perry emphasises. “That means we will never be comparing like with like and remembering that takes away the feeling of failure that can occur if we feel others are doing better.”
Dr Quinn-Cirillo knows the value of this technique only too well. “As a taller woman when growing up I have been acutely aware of how my body differs from others,” she says.
“I always come back to my values, such as what do I value about exercise or engaging with a hobby like dance, yoga, swimming or diving. This means focusing on how these support my personal health and wellbeing and let me engage with others, over how my body looks or my performance.”
Understand your comparison behaviour
Dr Quinn-Cirillo recommends understanding your own comparison behaviour: what is it that triggers you specifically? Is it how someone looks or is it more to do with what they’re working on? Are there underlying issues, like low self-esteem or low mood? Is comparison impacting your enjoyment of gym activity, making you feel more reluctant to work out or avoiding going altogether?
Once you’ve reflected on this, Dr Quinn-Cirillo suggests asking yourself why you go to the gym or go running, and how it adds to your life and wellbeing. If comparison has made going to the gym difficult, you could ask a friend to come with you for support and to help you find your enjoyment again.
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Dr Perry suggests finding things to be grateful for. “When I wrote The Ten Pillars Of Success, one of the facts that stuck the strongest was that we are unable to feel envious when we feel grateful,” she says. “We can’t feel both feelings at the same time. So, if you catch yourself comparing then look for something positive in your own life, fitness or routine to be grateful for.”
Focus on yourself
It sounds obvious but staying in your own lane and concentrating on your own stuff really does work.
“Know why you are there,” advises Dr Perry. “When you are certain of your own goal and how to reach it, then other people’s workouts become irrelevant. Feeling envious because someone else can run 2k on the treadmill super quickly becomes unimportant when you’re training for a marathon. Or someone looking super graceful in pilates is less likely to invoke jealousy if you are in that class to build strength to get back into netball.”
Be kind to yourself and celebrate your own achievements. Think about what you’ve done well recently, and acknowledge every success you’ve had, whether that’s a PB on the cross trainer or summoning the energy to slip on your trainers when you weren’t in the mood. It’s not about the people around you – you’re at the gym for yourself, and that’s what matters.
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