Mirror, Mirror in the Gym

Mirrors allow experienced exercisers to monitor their form, but they may make beginners self-conscious and ultimately discourage them from going to the gym.

By Christina Corcoran, published August 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Gyms interested in attracting new members may want to lose the mirrored walls.

Researchers found that sedentary women exercising face-to-face with their reflections walk away feeling less energized, less relaxed, and less good about themselves than women who work out without mirrors to gaze at.

In the study, Kathleen A. Martin Ginis, an associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, analyzed the behavior of 58 college students after they spent 20 minutes on a stationary bicycle while wearing loose-fitting shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes. She says that the team was surprised to find that even women who were happy with their bodies were affected by the mirrors. "We thought that the effects would be strongest in women with the worst body image," she says, "but body image didn't matter."

The study was published in the journal Health Psychology.

"If you're just focused on the appearance of the body then you're not focused on the experience itself," agrees Jay Kimiecik, PhD., an associate professor of exercise psychology at Miami University in Ohio. Kimiecik's philosophy of intrinsic exercise holds that exercisers should learn to pay attention to internal rather than external cues. According to Kimiecik, concentrating on appearance and external outcomes such as losing weight can take away from the enjoyment of the experience.

Mirrors may also make exercisers more aware of one another. "Putting a beginner in front of a mirror if they're surrounded by a lot of people can make them feel like they're being judged," said Kimiecik. Martin Ginis is conducting a follow-up study to measure the combined effect of mirrors and crowded rooms.

So what should be done to motivate couch potatoes to get to the gym? Experienced exercisers, especially weight lifters, use the mirrors to check their form and position, so taking them down may not be an option.

Kimiecik piloted a 12-week personal fitness program at the YMCA designed specifically for beginners. They set aside a separate, mirror-less area for the newbies so that they wouldn't have to deal with the environment of the main gym.

"In the health and fitness industry we totally underestimate the effects of things like mirrors. People are very much intimidated," he says.