Health-Oriented Workout Nets Psychological Benefit
By Erica Plouffe Lazure
Young women who struggle with body image are more likely to benefit from a fitness class where an instructor emphasizes the workout’s health benefits over improved appearance, even if they chose the class in effort to improve their appearance suggests a study conducted by exercise scientists in East Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Performance.
The study, led by ECU exercise and sport scientist Tom Raedeke, studied nearly 100 college-aged women who reported characteristics of social physique anxiety, a type of body image concern associated with a hyper-sensitivity about appearance. These students were then asked to participate in a step class in which the instructor either created an atmosphere focusing on exercise for health or appearance.
In some classes, the instructor emphasized the health benefits of the workout and wore baggy shorts and T-shirt. She also sprinkled health-oriented comments throughout the session, such as “Work it, let’s get fit and healthy!”
In the other classes, the instructor wore form-fitting clothes and emphasized appearance. She made comments throughout the classes that drew attention to appearance, such as “Stand tall, you’ll look five pounds lighter” or “Work it, let’s burn some calories.
“We found that participants in the health-oriented classes, enjoyed the class more and felt better afterwards,” Raedeke said.
These same women were more likely to say that they would like to join a similar class in the future, compared to women in the class where the instructor emphasized appearance by making comments about how the exercise would tone their legs or other body parts and burn calories.
“The classes which emphasized appearance reasons for exercise and weight loss, didn’t show the same degree of positive psychological benefits.”
Women in the study reported that they enjoyed the class more when the instructor focused on the health-related aspects of the workout, telling them how exercise will make them more fit.
Raedeke and collegues also had half the participants exercise in front of a mirror thinking that the presence of mirrors might influence psychological responses. However, that was not the case. Mirrors did not influence psychological responses, rather it was the instructor’s leadership style.
Raedeke said the atmosphere a fitness instructor created played an important role in the young women’s perception of the class.
“What impact does a class atmosphere have on a person’s mood and how she feels after the workouts?” Raedeke said. “The psychological benefits and improved mood associated with exercise aren’t just due to exercise itself. It has a lot to do with the social context surrounding exercise.”
The results of the surveys suggested that the instructor’s leadership style directly affected the student’s attitudes toward the class. The women in the health-oriented class reported that they felt more engaged in the workout as well as revitalized and less exhausted after class than did the women in the appearance-oriented classes.
“I hope people will recognize that we need a variety of exercise programs to tailor a workout to a person’s needs. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that individuals with body image concerns aren’t going to be comfortable in some exercise settings,” he said. “Body image is double-edged sword. We all want to look better and feel better, but traditional exercise settings can be very intimidating.”
The findings were published in the journal “Psychology of Sport and Exercise.” Raedeke worked with former ECU colleagues Brian Focht and Donna Scales on the study, funded by a grant from the Association for Applied Sports Psychology.