paige photo

Dunigan relaxes after a workout.

The gym can be an intimidating place, especially when it’s as big as UREC. Whether it’s one’s first time working out or one exercises regularly, it can be hard not to compare oneself to others or feel embarrassed.

Paige Dunigan came to JMU after graduating from Westfield High School in 2015. She grew up playing soccer and suffered two bad concussions during her senior year that ended her career. Dunigan started weightlifting as a replacement for all the time she’d spent playing soccer. 

“Not playing sports left a big void,” Dunigan said. “I needed some other way to channel that energy.”

When Dunigan first started going to UREC, it was undergoing renovations to expand its facilities, including the main gym. Before the renovation, Dunigan said the treadmills and cardio equipment were on a different floor than the weights and machines.

“You’d never see any girls go down there, it was always just guys, and it was really intimidating,” Dunigan said. “Then when [the renovations were complete] I feel like it just kind of changed the whole mentality of it.”

Once the renovation was complete, Dunigan said she saw more girls weightlifting at UREC and was motivated to do it herself. She learned proper form and technique by looking at the pictures on the sides of the machines and from friends who lifted and also learned how to target specific muscles. 

“Leg day [is my favorite], I love squats and deadlifts,” Dunigan said. “I think from soccer my legs have just always been my favorite thing to exercise.”

Tran Truong recently graduated from JMU and spent a lot of time working out at UREC. He and Dunigan frequently worked out at the same time and began to gradually make small talk and build a friendship.

“That’s the beauty of UREC,” Truong said. “When you go at a certain time or day you always see familiar faces.”

Gym intimidation, or gymtimidation, is when a person is intimidated by other gymgoers, usually due to physical appearance and comparison to oneself. Truong said he thinks this is a huge reason why girls are nervous to lift at the gym, especially one as big as UREC.

“The gym has a stereotypical image of just a strong, male, masculine dominated scene,” Truong said. “But I think the media and [activewear brands] like Gymshark, Alphalete and Lululemon have really made it more inclusive, and so it really changed the scene.”

Prioritizing a healthy lifestyle in college is important, but it can be difficult, especially when living on campus. Many freshmen have to learn how to adjust to living alone for the first time and are also worried about making friends, which might cause them to make unhealthy choices, such as drinking alcohol and eating unhealthy food on a regular basis.

“There’s always people wanting to go out or go and order pizza,” Dunigan said. “Things like that were definitely harder for me. Especially freshman and sophomore year, I would rather just go to the gym than go out sometimes.”

Dunigan joined a sorority as a freshman and lived in the sorority house her sophomore year. That was when she created an Instagram account where she posted the workouts she was doing as a way to hold herself accountable to her goals.

“Everyone was really supportive,” Dunigan said. “There were some girls in my sorority house [who would ask me to workout with them or show them a good workout], and even to this day everyone’s still so supportive. That was always nice because I felt like I still had that support system, even if they necessarily weren’t doing what I was doing.” 

In addition to her workouts at UREC, Dunigan said she tried to do something active on days she couldn’t make it to the gym, such as an at-home ab workout with her roommates or going for a walk around campus. Due to the current pandemic, not all students are comfortable going to the gym, but Dunigan said they can still get in a great workout.

“If I was in that situation, I’d probably just focus on my healthy eating but also just trying to get whatever exercise in you can,” Dunigan said. “Even if it’s just for a walk, anything helps.”

Maddie Judge, a senior at JMU, works at UREC as a personal trainer. She’s worked out at UREC since her freshman year and has continued going to UREC throughout the pandemic.

“I don’t think it’s that bad to be honest,” Judge said. “The availability’s really good, and everything’s really clean.”

Youtube, Instagram and TikTok have all become huge platforms for “fitness influencers” to share free workouts. Dunigan’s Instagram account has over 1,600 followers, and her workout posts get hundreds of likes. Madison Richard, who graduated from JMU last spring, credits fitness accounts like Dunigan’s not only for motivating her to stay active in college but also for getting more girls interested in lifting weights.

“Throughout my freshman year, there were more and more girls [in the gym] going over to the weights,” Richard said. “They weren’t just doing the traditional cardio things that you might see girls doing; I saw a lot of them going over to the weights. I think social media accounts [and seeing posts like Dunigan’s on Instagram’s explore page] had a really big influence because they would pop up on my [Instagram] explore page or they’d get shared in Facebook groups.”  

Dunigan graduated in 2015 and moved back home to Northern Virginia. She became a certified personal trainer and is currently a trainer for Stoked Bodies. Last June she released an ab and core strength guide, an eight-week program which she sold for $8.

Contact Courtney Ryder coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.