Should You Exercise in Front of a Mirror?

There's more than meets the eye.

Posted Mar 12, 2019

ProStockStudio/Shutterstock
Source: ProStockStudio/Shutterstock

Mirror is the latest fitness craze.  It’s a unique exercise apparatus that allows you to focus on your reflection and the instructor at the same time. It's like having the best spot in the class with your favorite instructor any time you want and in the privacy of your own home.

Mirror is sort of like a dynamic exercise selfie.  It takes the power of your screen and your own reflection to a new level. Maybe Mirror is an inevitable outgrowth from our self-obsessed culture, but mirrors have been a mainstay in gyms and dance studios for years.

So, what actually happens when you exercise in front of a mirror?  It depends on how you look at it.  Studies have reached conflicting conclusions about mirrors, with some finding workout benefits and others finding no effect or sometimes even negative effects. Mirrors produce different effects depending on our focus. So, it’s not surprising that research studies are found mixed results on the effects of mirrors on performance.

Let’s break down the most common ways you may be using mirrors in a fitness space, and elsewhere, maybe without even knowing it.

First, the mirror is a great tool to check out your form. This is, of course, at least in theory, the main reason mirrors are in gyms. In weight training and endurance sports, it’s crucial to have the proper alignment to avoid injuries.  And even outside the gym, we often use the mirror to check our posture and alignment.  Maybe you’ve had the experience of catching your reflection as you’re passing some reflective glass and noticed to your shock that you were they slouching and holding yourself in a lopsided manner. You hadn’t even realized it. Our bodies can get used to being out of alignment so much so that we are unaware of it. These distorted positions and patterns of movement can end up being the sources of injuries and chronic pain – unless we see them in the mirror and change them.

The mirror also allows you to see where you are in physical space and in relation to others. So this perspective is very useful to dancers and actors who share the stage and need to move in coordination. With a mirror, you gain a broader perspective on your position relative to the group. But by focusing on form and position, mirrors can interfere with developing proprioception which is the ability to sense relative positions of body parts without looking or thinking about them. Proprioception is about having an internal focus on how your body senses as it’s moving rather than how it looks. 

In general, research shows that external focus (focusing on how your movements affect the environment around you) leads to better performance than internal focus (focusing on how specific body parts or muscle groups are moving) in during physical tasks.  For example, free throw shooting in basketball is better if you focus on the rim rather than on the movement of your wrist. In archery, you want to focus on the target, not the feeling in your biceps as you pull back the bow. External focus allows well-practiced movements to take place automatically without much conscious attention which is more efficient than trying to directly control complex actions through mental effort.

So is looking in the mirror an internal or external focus? You could argue it either way.  Imagine dancing with a partner who moves with you in perfect synchrony. You can use the mirror to the practice your coordination by moving between an internal (proprioceptive) focus and external focus on how and where your body is moving through space.

With a mirror, you create a unique external focus. You’re watching yourself from the outside. By taking this third-person perspective and viewing ourselves as we imagine we appear to others, we can easily fall into self-objectification, that is, regarding ourselves as a physical image – an object, instead of as an emotionally complex human. Through constant exposure of these idealized images in the media, we’re socialized to objectify our own physical characteristics and then compare them to these unrealistic standards. Habitually comparing oneself in the mirror to idealized images has been found to intensify feelings of shame and anxiety.  Self-objectification also numbs awareness of bodily sensations and emotions. In taking another’s perspective we, by definition, can’t be in the present moment. Self-objectification reduces the frequency of flow states and diminishes cognitive performance too.

Alternatively, mirrors can help you develop your internal focus by reflecting the quality of your breathing and muscle tension. Use the mirror to check out the way you are holding your body: Are there areas of unnecessary tension? For instance, can you drop your shoulders or relax your jaw a bit? Try observing your breathing pattern in the mirror: are you breathing mainly in your upper chest, or holding your breath as you move? Use the mirror to practice taking some deeper belly breaths. Research shows that slow deep diaphragmatic breathing increases concentration and present-moment awareness. Deep breathing is also one of quickest ways to reduce anxiety and calm yourself

So, when you see your reflection in the mirror in your favorite work-out space – resist that urge to compare yourself with a supermodel. Instead, focus on your alignment, coordination, and breathing and use your reflection to focus and center yourself. You can learn more about how to use the mirror as a meditation tool here.

Copyright Tara Well, 2019.

References

Calogero, RM., et al., (2011). Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions. American Psychological Association.

Halperin I, Hughes S, Panchuk D, Abbiss C, Chapman DW (2016) The Effects of Either a Mirror, Internal or External Focus Instructions on Single and Multi-Joint Tasks. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0166799. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0166799

Lamarche L, Gammage KL, Strong HA. (2009). The effect of mirrored environments on self-presentational efficacy and social anxiety in women in a step aerobics class. Psychology of Sports and Exercise. 10(1):67–71.

Ma, X., et al., (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874

Petrocchi N, Ottaviani C, & Couyoumdjian A. (2017) Compassion at the mirror: Exposure to a mirror increases the efficacy of a self-compassion manipulation in enhancing soothing positive affect and heart rate variability, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:6, 525-536, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1209544