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More gyms are going mirrorless to reduce self-criticism and improve the workout

April 25, 2016

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Kevin Levit works out in a Costa Mesa gym without any mirrors. It’s a design feature that surprisingly allows him to see more clearly that he’s becoming stronger and slimmer.

Instead of watching the reflection of his every move, Levit notices how his endurance has increased and how his clothes fit more loosely.

"If you see yourself every day in the mirror, you’re only seeing the negative," said Levit, a 34-year-old bartender who belongs to Innovative Results. "People want to work out to feel better about themselves and you can’t do that if you’re always looking in the mirror and judging yourself."

Mirror-lined gym walls grew out of the 1970s bodybuilding movement, when lifters would watch themselves flex and pose. After years as the standard decor, some Southern California gyms are discarding mirrors like a sweaty towel over concern that they foster counterproductive self-criticism.

Academic studies have found that mirrors can diminish exercisers’ sense of well-being and don’t appreciably improve weightlifting form.

Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, published research in 2014 showing that exercising in front of a mirror increased tension levels among college students riding an indoor cycle compared with those pedaling without a mirror.

"If you’re looking at yourself and thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t look as healthy or as fit or as good and there’s somebody exercising next to me who is all glammed up or all fit,’" Plante said. "It just adds a level of stress to the average person that’s just not needed."

Plante noted that people who score high for narcissism most enjoy working out in front of the mirror.

"We live in a selfie culture," Plante said. "The fitness facilities and the gyms are going to appeal to that kind of narcissistic cultural trend.

"It also makes these facilities look bigger," he said. "If you put mirrors all around, it looks like this big, vibrant facility."

At Levit’s gym, the tall walls are covered with large photos of outdoor activities such as surfing, snowboarding and hiking.

"Outdoors, there’s no mirrors," said owner Aaron Guyett. "We want our clients to be able to get lost in play. When you were a kid and you played on the playground, you weren’t worried about what you looked like; you weren’t worried about your form."

For rare occasions when a mirror would be helpful for precise adjustments for advanced kettlebell lifts, Guyett shoots video with his phone. He said his staff reflects back to clients how they look, without the critical filters that mirrors might trigger.

"That’s what we get to do as coaches, is be those loving people and say, ‘You’re looking good. I can tell you’re feeling better because you’re smiling more,’" Guyett said. "The biggest component is mindset. If people are worried about looking fat, it’s really going to hurt their performance and hurt their progress mentally."

For Eric Doyle, owner of Long Beach Kettlebell Club, mirrors are expensive, breakable and unnecessary with proper training.

"The type of training we do is very technical and position-based," Doyle said. "You should be able to go by the feel. If it’s really described and shown correctly, I feel the mirrors aren’t necessary."

Even some dance studios have gone mirrorless.

At Sheila Kelley S Factor pole dancing studios in Costa Mesa, Los Angeles and Encino, Calif., the lights are dim and candles provide a warm glow. Ashley Colón, an instructor at the Costa Mesa studio, said that when women dance without seeing themselves, they can express their sensuality while removing any suggestion of a performance.

"The lack of mirrors allows you to have a little bit more permission," she said. "It takes away the idea of voyeurism, where someone is watching. You can really get intimate with your body and how it works."

Colón said mirrors also distract from the workout.

"There’s something that stops you from reaching your full potential, the full stretch or exertion of your body, when you add in a mirror. If you’re looking at your body from a mirror’s perspective, you’re not really going to tap into the deeper muscles to tone and get fit."

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