Mirrors In Fitness Studios

Why Mirrors in Fitness Studios Shouldn’t Be the Default

When the owners of Fire Boot Camp transitioned from working out in a parking lot to building a brick-and-mortar studio in 2015, they had a decision to make: To put in mirrors, or to go mirrorless? They talked to their customers—all of whom were women, including many who were mothers—and they came to a conclusion.

“It was a no-brainer not to make the 45 minutes like that [our clients] get and that they commit to a place where they feel intimidation or insecurity,” says Morgan Kline, Burn Boot Camp CEO and co-founder. “Whether they absolutely love everything about their body or not, we don’t want those distractions when they’re in Burn Boot Camp.”

Kline and her husband, Devan, stood by that decision as they grew from one studio to five, then started a franchise business. There are now over 330 Burn Boot Camp locations across the US, and it is policy not to have mirrors in any of the studios.

Why all the fuss about mirrors? Because the environment in which someone works out can affect variables such as self-confidence and motivation, according to Jamie Shapiro, PhD, an associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Denver. And mirrors can cut both ways.

“It depends on the person’s interpretation of what they see in the mirror,” says Dr. Shapiro. “What we think when we see ourselves in the mirror while exercising can be helpful for some people and detrimental for others.”

One person may use the mirror as an aid to help with their form. They may also look at themselves in a mirror and get the message that they are strong and capable and skilled at the task (a concept known as “self-efficacy”).

“I see myself exercising, and it gives me reinforcement that I’m doing something healthy for myself, or I’m achieving something,” says Dr. Shapiro. “And so in that way I think it can be useful.” Research from 2001 showing that exercising in front of a mirror increases self-efficacy supports this idea.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, the mirror can cause someone to pick apart their appearance, or compare themselves to other gym goers. This can sour their relationship with exercise, or deplete their self-esteem, such as one 2003 study found.

“It can absorb mental energy that takes away from the workout,” says Dr. Shapiro. Instead of focusing on how the movement feels, we can easily get caught up in how we look and develop tunnel vision around the body parts we are insecure about. (It may not be a coincidence that much of the fitness industry insists on offering “fixes” to these perceived flaws.)

In a blog post, The Bar Method, a nationwide barre class studio, writes that its roots as an exercise inspired by ballet contribute to its decision to have mirrors in studios. Ballet dancers need constant visual feedback to refine every movement of their body, as the aesthetic art form they practice is incredibly precise.

However, this justification fails to recognize the reality that dancers prepare for performances, while barre class is simply a place to get exercise. Yet, in his post, the Bar Method argues that the benefits mirrors can outweigh the risks of comparison or self-criticism. It is up to customers to make positive use of the mirror. The blog post cites an interview Dance Magazine with former president of the American Psychological Association, dr. Nadine Kaslow, to explain.

“It’s important to resist the urge to compare your appearance to others or dwell on the physical features you don’t like,” says Dr. Kaslow. “Instead, redirect that energy to appreciating your body for all it can do and use the mirror as a way to center yourself throughout your workout.”

This may be easier said than done in our appearance-focused society. Mirrors are not inherently a tool for either self-appreciation or self-criticism. The mirror itself is neutral. But people—and cultural forces like the diet industry—can have an impact on what that person sees, and thus the mirror’s effect.

“A lot of the time, people don’t like to look at themselves,” says Kline. “They don’t like what they see in the reflection, and we don’t want that to be another reminder during their workout.”

For this reason, Dr. Shapiro that studios need to be “more thoughtful” about whether or not to have mirrors, rather than making reflective surfaces the standard. Perhaps studios could investigate their clients, she suggests. Other ideas could be to only place mirrors in half of a classroom, or even offer choice by offering some classes in which mirrors are covered by a curtain.

Mirrors should be considered as deliberately as other fitness industry norms, such as how difficult a workout should be and clients’ reasons for exercising. These norms often come down to personal choice, and mirrors are no different. It’s time for some, yes, reflection on how we can help everyone get the kind of workout they crave.

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