Exercising In Front of Mirrors Will Bring You Down?

A couple of days ago I asked readers of my new FaceBook Page whether or not they preferred exercising in front of a mirror?

The response was mixed: for some definitely no mirrors, for some definitely yes, and for some the answer depends on the exercise (weights: yes; aerobic: no).

So what does research have to say on this?

A Canadian study to address this issue was done by Kathleen Martin Ginis and colleagues from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario published back in 2003 in Health Psychology.

The researchers examined body image concerns on changes in exercise-induced feelings and self-efficacy in 58 young sedentary women, who were randomised to perform a 20-min bout of solitary exercise in front of either a mirrored or a nonmirrored wall.

The results clearly indicated that regardless of their level of body image concern, the women in the mirrored condition felt significantly worse after exercising than the women in the unmirrored condition.

The authors note that these findings are entirely consistent with predictions of the objective self-awareness theory proposed by Duval and Wicklund in 1972. According to this theory:

“…any stimulus that causes focus on the self, such as the presence of a mirror, can lead to a state of increased self-awareness. This state is characterized by a greater awareness of internal sensations and the elicitation of a self-evaluation process whereby individuals compare themselves with standards or ideals that are salient in the situation. When the self-evaluation process results in a perceived discrepancy between the actual and the ideal self, negative self-evaluations and negative affect will occur.”

As noted by the authors, this theory is supported by numerous studies showing that gazing at oneself in a mirror increases self-focus and can lead to increased negative mood, particularly among women.

Not surprisingly, the authors conclude that these findings have important implications for physical activity and exercise recommendations:

“Our findings suggest that mirrored exercise environments may not just prevent sedentary women from deriving the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise but may actually cause mood decrements.

This raises the possibility that mirrored fitness facilities are a deterrent to exercise participation among sedentary women. Certainly if a woman leaves the gym feeling even worse than when she arrived, she will not be particularly motivated to continue exercising in the future.

As such, the recommended practice of placing mirrors in exercise centers may need to be reconsidered, especially in centers that are trying to attract exercise initiates.”

As far as I can tell by the abundance of mirrored walls in fitness centres, five years later, these findings have yet to be widely translated into practice.

I wonder what my readers have to say about this? Are there actually gyms out there that offer mirror-free exercise rooms?

Edmonton, Alberta

Martin Ginis KA, Jung ME, & Gauvin L (2003). To see or not to see: effects of exercising in mirrored environments on sedentary women’s feeling states and self-efficacy. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 22 (4), 354-61 PMID: 12940391