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Mirrors Make Some Women Feel Bad About Good Exercise

Looking at yourself in a mirror isn't exactly a study of life.

-- Lauren Bacall

Aug. 1, 2003 -- The answer to why you hate exercise may be staring you right in the face.

You're changing your life. You've made it to the gym, and you've just finished a good workout. You ought to feel great -- but you feel discouraged instead. What's wrong?

It could be the mirror on the wall. The finding comes from the lab of Kathleen A. Martin Ginis, PhD, associate professor of health and exercisepsychology at McMaster University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Her study of 58 women who very rarely exercised appears in the June issue of Health Psychology.

The sedentary women exercised on a stationary bicycle -- in the privacy of the laboratory -- for 20 minutes. Some of them felt good about it. Others didn't.

"Experienced exercisers, when they engage in a bout of exercise, improve their mood," Martin Ginis tells WebMD. "My study focused on beginners. Women who exercised without a mirror either went up in mood or at least stayed the same. For women who did have a mirror, they actually went down. Even though they successfully completed the exercise, their mood was worse than before."

Through a Glass, Darkly

It's not a moot problem. Nearly every gym covers at least two walls with huge mirrors. The idea is to help people see whether they are doing their exercises correctly. But it may be a big reason why so many beginners drop out. Or at least it's why female beginners drop out. Martin Ginis says mirrors affect women differently than they do men.

"There is a very well established body of literature in psychology showing that if women just sit there and look at a mirror, they will feel worse after a short time," she explains. "They start focusing on themselves. They start thinking about their faults, about being not attractive or not smart or not hard working. And that is obviously going to make you feel lousy. So if you translate this into an exercise setting, what happens? Our results suggest it's the exact same thing."

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