Beginner Workout Tip: Smash the Mirror

Mirrors Make Some Women Feel Bad About Good Exercise

From the WebMD Archives

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 exercise psychology 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."


It's an important finding, says Beth A. Lewis, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I. Lewis is studying ways to help people become more active as part of a healthy lifestyle.

"I'm not sure if this research is conclusive, but I definitely think that when people are first starting out in exercise, they find it intimidating to go to the gym and find others who are in better shape all around them," Lewis tells WebMD. "A mirror just accentuates that fact. And you aren't just looking at yourself in the mirror, but at all the people around you."

Lewis says it's puzzling why women say walking is their preferred form of exercise. She now wonders whether all those mirrors at the gym might have something to do with this preference.

You Can Do It

Martin Ginis suggests that gyms and health clubs might try covering the mirrors in the room where they hold beginner classes.

"With experience, women probably won't have the same response to the mirrors," she says. "It is a matter of getting women out and getting them active and then maybe they can move back into the gym environment without getting affected by the mirrors."

It's not really necessary to join a gym anyway, Lewis says. The important thing is just to become more active.

"All you need is a good pair of walking shoes and the ability to fit in 30 minutes of daily activity: 10 minutes in morning, 10 minutes at lunch -- maybe go up and down the stairs in your building -- and another 10 minute when you get home," she says. "People think they have to get their gym bag and do what we call exercise. But just being active in general can help."

Some suggestions:

  • Make physical activity a part of your life. It doesn't have to be expensive or time consuming.
  • Make it fun. Take kids to the park, get exercise videos, get a dog.
  • Have realistic expectations. You won't start looking like a movie star. But you will stay healthy.
  • Don't plan huge life changes or daily trips to the gym. Start slow and close to home.
  • Change things around a lot. The same routine week after week gets dull.
  • Keep at it. A little activity here and there adds up.

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: Health Psychology, June 2003. Kathleen A. Martin Ginis, PhD, associate professor, health and exercise psychology, McMaster University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Beth A. Lewis, PhD, assistant professor, psychiatry and human behavior, Brown University Medical School, Providence, R.I.
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