Why mirrors in fitness studios shouldn’t be standard

When the owners of Burn Boot Camp went from training in a parking lot to building a physical studio in 2015, they had a decision to make: Put in mirrors or go mirrorless? They talked to their customers – all women, including many mothers – and came to a conclusion.

“It was a no-brainer not to do those 45 minutes [our clients] they get and that they bind themselves to a place where they feel threatened or insecure,” says Morgan Klein, CEO and co-founder of Burn Boot Camp. “Whether they like absolutely everything about their body or not, we don’t want those distractions when they’re at Burn Boot Camp.”

Klein and her husband, Devan, stuck with that decision as they grew from one studio to five, then started a franchise business. There are now over 330 Burn Boot Camp locations in the US, and it is a policy that there are no mirrors in any of the studios.

Why all the fuss about mirrors? Because the environment in which someone works can affect variables such as self-esteem and motivation, according to Jamie Shapiro, Ph.D, associate professor of sport psychology at the University of Denver. And mirrors can cut in both directions.

“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 doing exercise can be beneficial for some people and detrimental for others.”

A person can use the mirror as a tool to help them with form. They might also look in the 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 working out, and it gives me a sense of empowerment that I’m doing something healthy for myself or that I’m accomplishing something,” says Dr. Shapiro. “And in that way, I think it can be useful.” Research from 2001 showing that practicing in front of a mirror increases self-efficacy supports this idea.

On the other side of the spectrum, however, a mirror can cause someone to distinguish their appearance or compare themselves to other gym-goers. This can worsen their relationship with exercise or drain their self-esteem found one 2003 study.

“It can take mental energy that takes away from exercise,” 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 body parts we’re unsure about. (It may not be a coincidence that much of the fitness industry exists to provide “solutions” to these perceived shortcomings.)

in blog post, The Bar Method, a national barre studio, writes that its roots as a ballet-inspired exercise contributed to its decision to have mirrors in the studios. Ballet dancers need constant visual feedback to perfect their every body movement because the aesthetic art form they practice is incredibly precise.

However, this justification fails to acknowledge the reality that dancers are preparing for performances, while the barre class is simply a place to practice. Still, Bar Method argues in its post that the benefits of mirrors may outweigh the risks of comparison or self-criticism. It is up to the customers to use the mirror positively. The blog post quotes interview in 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 physical attributes you don’t like,” says Dr. Kaslow. “Instead, channel that energy into appreciating your body for all it can do, and use the mirror as a way to center yourself during your workout.”

This may be easier said than done in our appearance-focused society. Mirrors, by their very nature, are neither a tool for self-evaluation nor self-criticism. The mirror itself is neutral. But people—and cultural forces like the diet industry—can influence what that person sees, and thus the mirror effect.

“Most of the time, people don’t like to be looked at,” Klein says. “They don’t like what they see in the reflection, and we don’t want that to be another reminder during their training.”

For this reason, Dr. Shapiro believes that studios should be “more thoughtful” about whether or not to have mirrors, rather than making reflective surfaces the default. Perhaps the studios could survey their customers, she suggests. Other ideas could be to place mirrors in only half of the classroom, or even provide choice by offering some classrooms where the mirrors are covered by a curtain.

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

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