This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
At Form Fitness, in Brooklyn, you’ll find an assortment of squat racks, dumbbells, and pull-up bars—which is to say, it’s a typical gym. But there’s one thing missing: mirrors.
For some fitness fanatics, this may sound more than a little odd. No floor-to-ceiling reflective surfaces to check your form (and check yourself out)? Blasphemy.
The owner of the gym, Morit Summers, decided to all but ditch mirrors in her space. (She put two small ones in the corner, mostly for mirror selfies.) When she founded Form Fitness, Summers knew she wanted to create a safe, unintimidating space for everyone to work out in, regardless of body type or ability. For her gym, that meant keeping massive fitness mirrors out.
You’ve heard about the variety of positive effects physical exercise can have on mental well-being, from easing anxiety to reducing feelings of depression. Yet mirrors in fitness settings could threaten these psychological gains, according to experts in fitness and psychology. “Fitness does have that very narcissistic side to it,” said Summers. Narcissus, you may recall, died from becoming obsessed with his own reflection. Working out while looking at yourself won’t be fatal, but it could be distracting—and may feel downright bad. Instead of enhancing your form, mirrors can even impair your ability to correct it.
Experiencing negative feelings while staring at your reflection in the gym could be explained by something called the theory of objective self-awareness, according to Jeff Katula, an exercise researcher at Wake Forest University.
“We naturally go through this self-evaluative process, whereby the ‘current self’ is compared to the ‘ideal self,’ ” he explained. “Since most of us do not live in the ideal self, there’s a gap between the current self and the ideal self, and that gap creates discomfort.”
Essentially, at the gym, your goal may be to have six-pack abs or a toned waist, but if your reflection doesn’t match that, it might make you more self-conscious. In 2014 Thomas Plante, an exercise psychologist from Santa Clara University, put this idea to the test by assigning a group of more than 100 people to three different setups for a stationary cycling session: one with a mirror; one with a mirror and posters of celebrity male and female personal trainers; and another without a mirror or posters.
Women reported feeling the most tense exercising in front of the mirror-and-posters setting, where they could easily compare themselves with the “ideal” body type of the trainers on display. Men, on the other hand, felt more stressed in the setting with only a mirror.
In the setting with both mirrors and posters, the subjects “worked harder in terms of the intensity,” Plante said. “But for the most part, it increased stress.” This could reduce the odds of a person returning to the gym in the future, he added. “The issue here, I think, is that we always want to make exercise doable for people to stick with it. So if they go to a gym and they were maybe feeling a little ill at ease with the other people who are exercising, and they feel inferior, they’re going to drop it.”
Along with Form Fitness, other gyms such as Planet Fitness have started to shift away from mirrors, with an eye toward body positivity. Planet Fitness, as the gym’s website explains, aims to “provide a workout environment in which anyone—and everyone—can be comfortable.” A personal trainer even told Shape last year that she found mirrors in gyms “fucking weird”; the article offered tips on how to work out in the absence of your reflection, like tuning in to how your body feels as it does a particular move. Some trainers recommend recording yourself while you lift and watching the footage back to determine how you should adjust your form. In fact, CrossFit facilities, along with many weightlifting-focused gyms, lack the wall-to-wall mirrors typically found at commercial gyms, science writer Beth Skwarecki has pointed out in Lifehacker. Gigantic reflections simply aren’t necessary.
Ditching the mirror can enhance your ability to perform well on a technical level. According to Summers—and a number of other personal trainers—mirrors can actually worsen your form and potentially increase the odds of getting hurt while you lift. For example, if, while doing a weighted squat, you turn your neck to the side to look at a mirror and make sure your back is straight, you may strain a muscle along your spine.
Further, watching yourself in a mirror “can actually take away from the learning process, because the feedback is almost, like, too quick,” said Tony Bonvechio, the owner of Bonvec Strength, a powerlifting gym in West Boylston, Massachusetts, that has no mirrors. “A lot of times, I’ll coach you to exercise, but I will also film it or have my lifter film it, and then we’ll review the video together afterwards. It’s so easy, with smartphones, to be able to pause at a certain point and scrub in slow-mo to be able to see the finest little details.”
In other movement disciplines, the role of the mirror can be a little more nuanced. In a 2020 study, Sally Radell, a dance professor and psychology researcher at Emory University, examined the impact of mirrors on body image in beginner ballet and modern undergraduate dance students. For a semester, she had another dance teacher at the university cover the mirror in some of their classes and leave it uncovered in others, then had students take a portion of what’s called the Cash 69-item Body-Self Relations Questionnaire. She found that the students in the mirrored classes liked having a way to see themselves and adjust their movements but used more objectifying language to discuss their bodies than did the students in the mirrorless class, who instead tended to focus on “kinesthetic sensations.”
Radell is currently working on research analyzing the differences in body image perception for dancers in classes with partial mirrors versus no mirrors to try to find the best setting for practice. “The mirror is a tool. It’s something to be reckoned with,” she said. “People don’t realize how powerful it is. And more research needs to be done because there’s not many of us doing this work.”
I decided to see how going mirrorless would affect my own fitness experience by trying out a yoga class at Y7 Studio, in New York’s Upper East Side. Like a lot of yoga studios, the space didn’t have any mirrors—but Y7 goes one step further, hosting classes in a dark, candlelit room where you can barely see the person next to you, in an effort to, the website explains, “encourage you to turn your focus inward and explore your individual practice.”
There was no reflection for me to check the form of my Downward Dog, and no way to look at others in the class when I was struggling with a pose.
But it also meant I had no way to sneak a glance at the bit of stomach that was pushing out of my leggings (and had been making me feel self-conscious for weeks). It meant no light to look over at that one girl who somehow emerged from class without a drop of sweat, despite the room being set at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I was forced to listen to the instructor and my body instead of just looking up every time I wanted to make an adjustment—and I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed it.
It’s important to note that mirrors aren’t going to have the same negative influence on everyone in gyms and other fitness settings. For example, if a person likes the way they look, they may feel motivated while looking in a gym mirror, according to Plante from Santa Clara University. It really comes down to where a person is “in their fitness journey,” he said. Plante believes that the best way to create a more inclusive gym environment is to offer different settings for people to work out in, with some spaces that have mirrors and others that don’t.
But if you’re designing a gym or thinking about what would work best for your own home setup, here’s one last thing to keep in mind, from Summers: When it comes to the lack of mirrors at her gym, not a single person has ever complained.