Reflecting on exercise

Tuesday, September 30, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:27 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Mirror-lined walls and fitness centers go together like french fries and hamburgers. But are mirrors at the gym any healthier for women than a value meal?

Not if you believe a recent study from Canada.

Women who exercise in front of a mirror feel worse about themselves than those who exercise without watching their bodies in action, say researchers at McMaster University in Ontario. The study measured the psychological effect of two groups of women. One group rode exercise bikes in front of a mirror; the others did the same routine with the mirrors covered.

The group who exercised in front of the mirror were more exhausted and less calm after their workout than the other group, the researchers found.

Some local fitness enthusiasts were skeptical after reflecting on the researchers’ conclusions.

Ginger Dial, a personal trainer for Gold’s Gym in downtown Columbia, said the study only measured one kind of exercise while ignoring the positive impact of other exercises such as flexibility training and weightlifting.

“I think maybe they should have done all the components of fitness,” Dial said. “Having someone sit on a bike is completely different than having someone lift weights.”

Others, however, understood exactly what the McMaster researchers are talking about.

“I tend to have a thinner image of myself,” said Jane Smith, who exercises at Curves for Women, 3516 I-70 Drive SE. “When I see mirrors I think, ‘Oh is that what everyone else is seeing?’ ”

Heather Bradshaw, a Curves employee, said the health club’s female clientele appreciate the fact that the health club has only one mirror in its central workout room. Bradshaw likes the mirrorless environment, too, although not for the same reason.

“I’ve noticed that when people are in front of the mirror they are not as apt to (exercise) as hard,” Bradshaw said.

It may not be coincidental that at Gold’s — where it’s all mirrors, all the time — the attitude toward the study is different than at Curves.

Mirrors cover about half the walls at Wilson’s Total Fitness, in the Forum Shopping Center, where reaction to the study varied.

Stacy McKinney, who works at Wilson’s, said bodybuilders must have mirrors to make sure their form is correct.

On the other hand, he said, cardiovascular exercise doesn’t require the same diligence and, in fact, may not be as visually appealing to some people.

McKinney also said that over the long term, regular exercise improves self-esteem and that after a while, mirrors just aren’t all that important to the workout.

“I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in (the study),” McKinney said. “But I do agree that there are a lot of people who don’t want to see themselves.”

McKinney’s co-worker, Gail Tweeddale, said she sometimes has to stand in front of the mirror for her clients.

“A lot of times it’s just self-consciousness,” Tweeddale said. “They don’t want anyone to see them, let alone see themselves in the mirror.”

Misti Hollrah, a Wilson’s member, was getting ready to get on a Stairmaster machine when she was told about the study. Hollrah laughed and said she really hadn’t thought about whether watching herself exercise made her feel better or worse. She did admit, however, that some aspects of her appearance are of greater concern.

“If I did pay attention to the mirrors I may think, ‘Oh my hair is out of place,’” Hollrah said.

Back at Gold’s Gym, Dial said she has received more complaints about the absence of mirrors. One client complained daily until a broken mirror was replaced, saying the plain wall made her feel claustrophobic. Even so, Dial said, mirrors do not play a significant role in whether or not people choose to join a health club and exercise in public.

“When I talk to people who don’t want to go to the gym,” Dial said, “the main reason is not because the mirrors are intimidating, but because the people are.”

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