Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Chased from the gym by reflections of the less-than-perfect you

Posted Aug 18, 2011

Ugh! The mirrors are everywhere:  in front of the exercise bike, in back of the exercise bike, on the sides of the exercise bike.  Mirrors are part of the gym experience.  They are there, supposedly, to help you work on your form, to admire your form, and, of course, to make the gym look bigger.  But for many people, these mirrors take the pleasure out of exercise. 

For example, in a 2003 study in the journal, Health Psychology, researchers studied 58 sedentary women when they exercised in front of a mirror or a non-mirrored wall.  The results showed worse feeling states for the women who faced the mirror, and this occurred for women with both high and low levels of body image concerns.  In other words, mirrored gyms appear to be bad news for women seeking to start exercise.  

Researchers also have been studying social physique anxiety as a factor that leads people to avoid exercise.  Social physique anxiety refers to the feelings of distressed linked to concerns that other people are judging your body.  In a 2009 study in the journal, Obesity, social physique anxiety had the same effects on mood regardless of whether the sedentary women studied were normal weight, overweight, or obese (and, by the way, in this study the women were middle-aged).  In each of these groups of women, worries about appearance had no effect on mood when the level of exertion was low or when the level of exertion was high.  However, at moderate exercise, worse moods were linked to social physique anxiety. The authors interpreted this effect as the impact of worries about appearance when exertion was just becoming hard to manage. At this level of exertion, worries about how one is perceived—"Am I sweating too much?" "Am I breathing too hard?" "Do I look odd?" "Am I falling behind on the pace?"—kick in more strongly.  The result is less pleasure during exercise.  And as you might recall from one of my previous posts, less pleasure during exercise translates into dropping out of an exercise program over time.

At the heart of social physique anxiety is the tendency to imagine critical evaluations from others.  That is, even when mirrors aren't present, other people are used as mirrors - distorted mirrors that focus only on disliked aspects of the self.  This tendency toward self-criticism (using the imagined opinion of others) is amplified in social anxiety disorder:  the full-fledged clinical condition where people's relationships and life roles are seriously hampered by fears of negative evaluation.  Accordingly, treatments for social anxiety target the correction of these concerns, helping people do less "mind reading" of other's thoughts and opinions ("I know she thinks I am foolish;" "He thinks I am sweating too much") and focus on the goal at hand.  Rather than holding a mirror up to every action, the focus is on the outcome - did it work? And when it comes to the gym, the goal is to exercise and to feel good.   The gym is exactly the place to be tired, sweaty, and struggling - signs of exertion are the admission ticket to useful change in mood and health. 

As such, people new to exercise need to practice good coaching.  It isn't about appearance; it is about doing what needs to be done to feel good.  Remind yourself that you are supposed to sweat, that you are supposed to be imperfect, and that, as a newbie at the gym, you will be working harder than others to get used to the feel and look of moderate exercise.  Appreciate your effort. 

But always, starting slowly is useful, even when it comes to learning not to be so critical of yourself.  If you are brand new at the gym, you may want to pick an exercise bike that is toward the back of the class, so that you can get some experience seeing that lots of people sweat and strain during a workout.  Then as you get more used to this reality, move on up, and practice seeing yourself in the mirror in a new way.  Instead of having the mirror simply reflect your tendencies toward self-criticism, have it reflect a person working hard toward mood and health goals. Then, get lost in the music, get lost in the feelings of exertion, and stay out of other people's heads. 

Copyright Michael Otto

Drs. Michael Otto and Jasper Smits are authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well Being.