Why gym design is all wrong

Walk into any gym these days and you’re confronted by a bank of exercise machines facing a wall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Yet new research suggests this could be the worse possible set-up for sedentary women braving the gym for the first time.

Kathleen Martin Ginis and colleagues invited 92 women to exercise at their lab where they allocated them to one of four conditions: to cycle for 20 minutes on an exercise bike alone with no mirror; to cycle alone in front of a mirror; to cycle with two to four other women with no mirror; or to cycle with two to four other women in front of a mirror.

None of the women usually completed more than 15 minutes of exercise a week and they were asked to dress with baggy shorts and a t-shirt to avoid any effect clothing might have on the results.

Compared with the women in the other groups, the women who exercised with others in front of a mirror appeared to suffer – they felt less revitalised afterwards, more exhausted, and more self-conscious. The researcher said it’s probable the presence of mirrors and other exercisers encouraged comparison of oneself against others or against some physical ideal.

The researchers cautioned that their study was not conducted in a real gym environment, but they advised women new to exercising to sample a range of environments to see what suits them best. “An exercise initiate may feel better working out in a private, unmirrored environment, or outdoors, instead of partaking in a group exercise class in a mirrored aerobics studio,” they said.

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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.