The Mirror Tells It All?

Using the mirror during exercise can reduce psychological benefits of exercise

Posted Sep 28, 2014

The mirror greets me when I return from summer holiday and resume my regular exercise routine in the gym. It is nice to be back, but I am also somewhat anxious to look at my reflection. Is much altered? Is it worse? Did I enjoy my holiday time too much and now it shows? Standing there hiding my underarms under long sleeves (just in case), I wonder if I was happier to exercise without the mirrors over the holidays. I now scrutinize my legs to see if they are bigger after all that biking or if my stomach bulges out despite trying to watch my diet. On the other hand, my mirror image should motivate me to beat my possibly flabby body into toned and taut shape again. I glance at the mirror again to see what the others are doing. Do they share my anxiety?

Most gyms and fitness studios have a mirror. The American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM) also recommends that all exercise class rooms should have one. The mirrors, it is believed, generally improve exercise ‘form’ and thus, maximize the physical benefits of the workout.

According to some research findings, however, the presence of a mirror does not guarantee positive exercise experiences. For example, exercising in front of a mirror might reduce psychological benefits such as a positive mood or an better sense of self-efficacy (the belief that one can successfully complete one’s work out). Psychological researchers are, nevertheless, divided in their advice. They also point to gender differences in terms of the advantages of using a mirror in an exercise session.

Some researchers indicate that women feel worse about themselves after exercising with a mirror. For example, mirrors can lower women’s self-efficacy and increase anxiety and negative feelings (Lamarche, Gammage & Strong, 2009). Gammage, Martin Ginis, and Hall (2004) added that exercising in revealing clothing and presence of men increased women’s anxiety over their bodies being evaluated by others (social physique anxiety).

Sedentary women tend to feel the negative impact of the mirror more than active women. In their study Ginnis, Young, and Gavin (2003) discovered that exercising in front of the mirror had a negative effect on sedentary women’s feeling states regardless if the women had previous body image concerns. In Focht and Hausenblas’s (2003) study low active women who were very conscious of their bodies being judged by others (high social physique anxiety) used a stationary bicycle in a public fitness center in front of a mirror. Their anxiety increased.

Research with active women shows a different relation to the mirror. In their study, Katula et al. (1998) had moderately active women and men exercise in front of a mirror. They found that women’s self-efficacy (or their belief in successfully completing the task) was significantly lower than men’s self-efficacy. The authors deducted that women became more self-conscious with the mirror which increased their body image concerns and made them feel worse about themselves as exercisers. They followed up this study (Katula & McAuley, 2001) with highly active women in a step class to find that the mirror increased these women’s self-efficacy. The researchers contemplated that these experienced exercisers might have used the mirror to check on their technique rather than their looks and thus, the mirror improved the sense of competently finishing the exercise session. Other studies with university aged women in step aerobics classes, Raedeke et al. (2007) and Lamarche, Gammage, and Strong (2009) found no impact of mirrors on the psychological response of exercise.

How can the presence of a mirror provide such different benefits? It seems like the mirror made the sedentary women and unskilled exercisers feel worse. Obviously, mirrors do not tend to encourage women to start exercising and make beginners feel worse about themselves (and their bodies).

Active and skilled women exercisers, however, had self-belief as exercisers and the researchers did not ask specifically how the women used the mirror, they speculated that it was mainly to improve the technique or the ‘form’ as suggested by the ASCM. In addition, if women engaged in a complex exercise routine such as step aerobics that requires coordination and skill, they concentrated on performing the movements. Women using relatively simple and repetitious exercise such as stationary bicycling had more time to worry about how their bodies looked in the mirror.

Although less in known about men’s preferences, it seems like they relate to the mirror in a similar manner to skilled women. In Katula et al.’s (1998) study, the mirror did not lower men’s self-efficacy or increase their anxiety about how their bodies looked. In his study, Aycock (1992) found that men, indeed, used the mirror to survey their exercise performance, although they were careful not to be too obsessive about it. However, the mirror also served as a source of constant comparisons with others’ performances, a practice that the men pretended was not there. The mirror was, thus, a tool of constant unacknowledged judgment of all exercisers’ ability, but also a way to steal or imitate others’ workouts. Aycock summarized this rather bizarre situation:

“At once, one must see oneself in the mirrors, see others looking at oneself, and not see others who are themselves not being seen; all this while constantly appraising performances even to the extent of imitating the persons who are presumably invisible.” (p. 354)

On my first day back from a summer of exercising without a mirror, I also found myself gazing at other exercisers through the mirror without having to stare directly at them. Maguire and Mansfield (1998) added that women aerobicizers in Britain, like the men in Aycock’s study, compared their abilities through the mirror, but in addition, compared how their bodies looked, who had gained weight, and who had the body closest to the thin and toned ideal. In my own study (Markula, 2003), aerobicizers in the United States also compared their body shapes to the ideal thin and toned fit feminine body. I was also more determined to exercise my body into shape after seeing in the mirror. Is this a positive use of the mirror?

Psychological research points out that such comparisons to the ideal body can lead to negative self-evaluation that can then increase social anxiety. Nevertheless, Katula and McAuley (2001) also speculated that comparing body sizes through the mirror can be positive if it helps the individual to successfully complete an exercise session. 

Based on the research results, to gain both psychological and physical benefits of exercise, we should use the mirror:

1. to assess performance, not the body shape;

2. to engage in complex activities that require coordination and skills to ensure a focus on performance;

3. to engage in positive comparisons with other exercisers, not in a negative comparison with the external body ideal.

These are not easy recommendations to implement into our everyday exercise lives. How is it possible to ignore one’s body shape and focus purely on one’s performance? How is it possible to not long for an ideal body? What about beginner exercises who do not yet have a high level of skill?

High skill level and a body close to the ideal do not necessarily guarantee a constructive use of the mirror and positive feelings about oneself. Several studies indicate that professional dancers and dance students, who are both very skilled and most likely possess a thin body, concentrated on monitoring their body shape, not their technical abilities, in the mirror. As a result, they tended to have poor body satisfaction (Dearborn, Harring, Young, & O’Rourke, 2006; Radell, Adame, & Cole, 2002; Radell, Adame, & Cole, 2003).

It is obvious that women judge (and feel that others do as well) their bodies through the mirror and that this continual assessment makes many of us anxious: we do not seem to ever quite measure up. One’s body is even more exposed in exercise classes where we often wear revealing clothing and where our skill level is under constant scrutiny. When the mirror painfully exposes all these flaws it can be difficult to focus on the positives. Men appear to fare better: they focus on their performance. Does this reflect their superior ability to engage with their bodies’ positives or does it highlight the stricter standards and closer scrutiny placed on women’s body appearance in our society?

With the current ideal thin, toned, and youthful fit feminine body it is nearly impossible to use the mirror entirely positively whether focusing on body shape or physical performance. However, it is possible to use the mirror less. For example, do we always need to stand in front of the mirror when exercising? We can face away from it, face it sideways, or use it selectively to focus on certain aspects of performance such as proper alignment. Therefore, the mirror in itself is not entirely good or entirely bad. But how we see ourselves in it is also shaped by external social standards. These comparisons can lead to problems such as body dissatisfaction. Therefore, in addition to individual women changing how they use the mirror, some of the strict social body image ideals need checking for women to feel better about their mirror images.

Research Cited:

Aycock, A. (1992). The confession of the flesh: disciplinary gaze in casual bodybuilding. Play & Culture, 5, 338-357.

Dearborn, K., Harring, K., Young, C., & O’Rourke, E. (2006). Mirror and phrase difficulty influence dancer attention and body satisfaction. Journal of Dance Education, 6, 116-123.

Dearborn, K., & Ross, R. (2006). Dance learning and the mirror: Comparison study of dance phrase learning with and without mirrors. Journal of Dance Education, 6(4), 109-115.

Focht, B. C., & Hausenblas, H. A. (2004). Perceived evaluative threat and state anxiety during exercise in women with social physique anxiety. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 361–368. 

Ginis, K., A., M., Burke, S. M., & Gauvin, L. (2007). Exercising with others exacerbates the negative effects of mirrored environments on sedentary women's feeling states. Psychology & Health, 22, 945–962.

Ginis, K. A. M., Jung, M. E., & 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, 22, 354-361.

Katula, J. A., & McAuley, E. (2001). The mirror does not lie: Acute exercise and self- efficacy. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8, 319–326.

Katula, J. A., McAuley, E., Mihalko, S. L., & Bane, S. M. (1998). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Exercise environment influences on self-efficacy. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 13, 319–332. 

Lamarche, L., & Gammage, K. L. (2010). The effects of leader gender on self-presentational concerns in exercise. Psychology & Health, 25, 769–781.

Lamarche, L., Kimberley L. Gammage, K. L., & Strong, H. A. (2009). The effect of mirrored environments on self-presentational efficacy and social anxiety in women in a step aerobics class. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 67-71.

Maguire, J., & L. Mansfield (1998). "No-body is perfect:" Women, aerobics, and the body beautiful. Sociology of Sport Journal, 15, 109-137.

Markula, P. (2003). Postmodern aerobics: Contradiction and resistance. In A. Bolin and J. Granskog (Eds.), Athletic intruders: Ethnographic research on women, culture, and exercise (53-78). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Radell, S. A., Adame, D. D., & Cole, S. P. (2002). Effect of teaching with mirrors on body image and locus of control in women college ballet dancers. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 95, 1239-1247.

Radell, S. A., Adame, D. D., & Cole, S. P. (2003). Effect of teaching with mirrors on ballet dance performance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 97, 960-964.

Raedeke, T. D., Focht, B. C., & Scales, D. (2007). Social environmental factors and psychological responses to acute exercise for socially physique anxious females.Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8, 263–276.

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