Many people are now more uncomfortable than ever before to enter a gym. As soon as you enter the facility you see large men in revealing clothes grunting as they lift heavy weights. You check into the gym and see young girls wearing tight Gymshark outfits who remind you of what you will never look like. As you walk to the locker room you spot a group of loud fraternity brothers hogging a bench press. And lastly, you see the dreaded mirrors everywhere that remind you of how ugly and pathetic you are.
It is fair to say that our culture has not created a gym atmosphere that is conducive to encouraging the general population to exercise. Planet fitness is a gym that has adopted the slogan that states it is a “judgment free zone.” But is it truly “judgment free” if the gym environment is exactly the same as every gym in town?
To be fair, I think it is important to highlight that Planet Fitness has done many things to create a more welcoming atmosphere. They have implemented a “lunk” alarm which is a loud siren that will go off if the staff sees anyone grunting or dropping weights. They even hang comical signs to discourage “lunks” from working out at their facilities:
“Lunk (lunk) n. [slang] one who grunts, drops weights or judges. [Ricky is slamming his weights, wearing a body building tank top and drinking out of a gallon water jug… what a lunk!]”
Planet fitness has also strategically removed many of their free weights. They replaced all of their squat and bench racks with Smith machines and cap their dumbbells at 75 pounds. Additionally, they give away free bagels on the first Monday of every month and give away pizza on the second Tuesday of every month.
Despite these efforts, I have still met many people who are afraid to enter a gym like Planet Fitness. Some of the reasons these people are intimidated by Planet Fitness are outside of the gyms control. For example, if a large bodybuilder wants to join one of their facilities, the staff cannot deny them a membership as this would be an act of discrimination. The gym can also not control for the amount of people who use their facility at a given time nor the loud noises that are typical in any gym setting (e.g. music, treadmill belts, weights clicking). However, there is one thing that Planet Fitness can do that will provide some benefit to the members that they cater do. They can take down all of the mirrors that fill their walls.
In my previous article, we learned about how the affective responses, or feelings of pleasure-displeasure, experienced during exercise play an important role in future adherence. In this article we will discuss the effects of exercising in a mirrored vs. non-mirrored environment on the affective responses and changes in self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s ability to perform a certain task (e.g. exercise). We will then discuss why the common opinion that mirrors help improve exercise technique is flawed and conclude with some practical takeaways for any gym owner.
Review of Literature
To my knowledge, the first study to directly investigate the psychological effects of exercising in front of mirrors was published in 1998 by Katula and colleagues. They conducted an experiment on somewhat active undergraduate students where they either exercised on a treadmill for 20 minutes in front of a blank wall or in front of a full-length mirror. There was also a third condition where the participants exercised using their preferred mode (e.g., jogging, biking, elliptical) for 20 minutes in their natural environment (e.g., outside, student recreational center). This study found physical self-efficacy and social physique anxiety to predict the participants self-efficacy to exercise only in the mirrored condition. Basically, the mirrors caused the students to become more anxious about their appearance and less confident in their physical abilities. In turn, this reduced the student’s confidence that they could exercise.
Subsequent experiments did not find exercising in front of mirrors to have any impact on exercise self-efficacy compared to exercising in front of a blank wall. These experiments were performed among both sedentary females and active females with social physique anxiety.
Even though self-efficacy is important and does predict exercise participation and adherence, I’m personally more interested in studying how people feel during and after exercise. This is a pretty poor area of the literature as most studies investigating how people feel while exercising in front of a mirror have studied affect from a categorical (specific) rather than a dimensional (broad) aspect. If you’re curious, these studies have studied the effects of exercise and mirrors on anxiety (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and these studies have investigated the effects of exercise and mirrors on other affective constructs (1, 2, 3).
The results are mixed, but the scale is tipping towards the argument that mirrors have a negative impact. Still, this leaves the question of why some experiments (1, 2) have found no differences in the psychological effects of exercising in the presence or absence of mirrors?
Among some people, mirrors have absolutely no impact on how they feel during and following exercise. However, a cool study on exergaming (i.e., playing a video game that incorporates aspects of physical activity) suggests that it may be the outliers who are affected the most by mirrors. In this study, the researchers surveyed 198 potential participants with a body image satisfaction survey. The researchers then invited the participants who scored in the top and bottom 30% of the survey to participate in the study. After dropouts, a total of 85 participants were left. The researchers had half the sample play the video game Eye Toy Kinetic where they could see themselves through the camera on the screen. For the other half of the participants, the researchers covered up the camera so that the screen displayed a black image where you would usually see yourself. This essentially created a mirrored and non-mirrored exercise condition.
Participants with low body image satisfaction reported greater self-efficacy, a more positive mood , and greater levels of enjoyment after exercising in the condition where they couldn’t see themselves. In contrast, participants with a high body image satisfaction reported a more positive mood and greater enjoyment after playing the video game in the condition where they could see themselves. No differences in self-efficacy were found for the participants with high body image satisfaction.
These results make a lot of sense. Basically, if you feel confident about the way you look and are comfortable in your own skin, exercising in front of a mirror makes you feel better. However, if you do not like the way you look, exercising in front of a mirror will make you feel worse as you will visually see your imperfections and may experience more negative self-talk.
This finding is also grounded in psychological theory. According to Self-Awareness Theory, when a person starts to direct their attention to themselves (i.e., by viewing their reflection in a mirror), they begin to compare themselves to the “standard” of what they believe they should look or act like. This is highly influenced by the culture of the person. So, a girl who grows up viewing images of beautiful Instagram models who lift weights may compare themselves to this model as the standard of what they should look like. The mirror may trigger the girl to question why she has more body fat, less muscle, or more skin blemishes than these models. This will cause the girl to experience negative affect.
The girl will now have two options for how to deal with her affective state. She can simply ignore the negative self-talk and become more mindful of what she is doing. In the context of working out, the girl would direct her attention away from the mirror and to the changes going on inside her body (e.g., heart rate, breathing rate, contracting muscles). It would be awesome for her to take this first action but learning to simply “ignore” the negative affect that you feel is a very hard skill to master. More likely, she will take option two where she continues to ruminate over why she does not uphold this fitness standard and figure out how to change herself to conform to the norm. This option may cause her to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as severe caloric restriction or excessive amounts of exercise.
This is where things become highly individual which is why we see mixed affective responses from exercising in front of mirrors in the literature. The reality is, most people are unhappy with at least some aspect of the way they look. Some people are just better at accepting their imperfections than others.
So, if the affective responses from exercising in front of mirrors are highly individual, why do I think it is a good idea for Planet Fitness to remove all of the mirrors from their gym?
As a society, we must do everything in our power to ensure that everyone in the world is sufficiently active. The benefits of increasing physical activity among developed countries is astronomical. This is an uphill battle and we must all be prepared to make sacrifices.
We have not created a society that is conducive to good health. We tend to focus way too much on people’s physical health and ignore everything else. People who are obese are immediately shammed from society as if being overweight is somehow their fault. Even though it is well understood that we live in an obesogenic environment. Likewise, people who struggle with mental health are shunned as if it is their fault that they don’t know how to cope with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s not like every year over 20% of Americans deal with a serious mental illness or anything; but no, it’s still their fault for being mentally weak.
If some people feel worse when they exercise in front of mirrors, they are less likely to exercise in the future. If our ultimate goal is to get as many people physically active as possible, why are we still hanging up mirrors everywhere?
Are there any benefits to Mirrors?
There are a couple of arguments that people make for why gyms should have mirrors. The two governing bodies of exercise science in America both recommend that gyms are filled with mirrors. In the early editions of the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines (1997) they recommend that mirrors be hung on at least two of the four walls in the exercise facility. ACSM has removed this line from their textbook in later editions but still mention mirrors numerous times; usually in reference to cleaning responsibilities. The National Strength and Conditioning Association states: “They (mirrors) can be used as a coaching tool if racks and platforms are placed in the right position, as they provide immediate visual feedback to the athlete (8).” They cite this article in support of their claim. Unfortunately, the article they cite does not mention anything about mirrors nor exercise technique. Instead, the article focuses on how gym owners should go about purchasing equipment for their facility.
So, the governing bodies of exercise science provide no support for why they recommend placing mirrors in fitness studios. But, is there any evidence to support the use of mirrors at all?
The short answer to this question is yes. However, the findings have been mixed and the research rarely focuses on weightlifting technique and/or performance.
A study by Halperin and colleagues did investigate if mirrors effected the performance of a preacher curl and squat jump. This study currently has the most relevant design for studying the effects of mirrors on weightlifting performance. Most other studies have focused on balance or motor performance. To be brief, there were ultimately no differences between the mirrored and non-mirrored condition in terms of force production, jump height, velocity of jump, or muscle activity. This debunks the idea that people somehow get a better workout from using mirrors.
If you made it this far, you now know that the mirrors that fill your gym’s walls are somewhat unnecessary. So, should all gyms remove their mirrors? Absolutely not! There are many people out there who benefit from having mirrors in the gym. For example, I personally love to see my muscles contracting when I’m lifting heavy weights. However, I’m also the person who willingly strips down to a thong to flex my muscles for the entertainment of a crowd. Therefore, I don’t think I am the type of clientele Planet Fitness is targeting.
What I would love to see gyms like Planet Fitness do is to send out a survey about mirrors in their facilities. This will allow them to estimate how many of their members will be upset about the transition and may terminate their memberships. If this sounds extreme from a business perspective, I would like to remind you that this wouldn’t be the first time Planet Fitness has pissed off a portion of their members. For example, how many memberships were terminated when Planet Fitness decided to remove all of their barbells?
If Planet Fitness truly wants to create a “judgment free zone” where everyone feels comfortable to exercise, they should remove all of their mirrors. I could be wrong. It could easily be that most of the members enjoy having mirrors in the gym and it would be silly to take them down. However, based on my review of the literature and conversations I’ve had with various people, it appears there is a large market for people who would prefer to go to a gym where they didn’t have to constantly look at their reflection.
If you’re a local gym owner, you may be reluctant to remove all of the mirrors in your facility. This is completely understandable as you probably cater to a broad audience and would anger some of the members if you took down the mirrors. If this is the case, I would suggest you consider adding a women’s only area to your fitness facility that contains no mirrors. Women appear to have greater levels of social physique anxiety and lower levels of physical self-esteem than men. This means that there probably are more females than males who would benefit from a gym membership that didn’t contain mirrors. While this isn’t a perfect solution, it would most definitely be a step in the right direction.
I use mood to be consistent with the terminology used by the authors. In my opinion, affect is a better term to describe their measurement.