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Should gyms be encouraging weight loss??

By Rebecca Stern

Some of the ideas that society likes to tell us is that to fit in you need to be skinny, you need to tone up for summer, you need to work out so that you look attractive and you will be more successful. It is easy to believe these messages as they are constantly broadcasted. On the odd occasion when I manage to get to the gym, I am often disappointed by the focus the gym instructor gives to working harder to tone our butt and thighs, with limited or no mention of getting stronger or simply just enjoying the workout and the endorphin rush that follows. I have often wondered about the negative impacts that these environments can have on many vulnerable members of our society so I decided to do some research into it.

Increasingly, fitness centres have become popular places to obtain ones exercise regime. This is perhaps because of the evidence that physical activity has numerous health and psychological benefits. However there is evidence that not all individuals benefit positively from all types of exercise.  A study by Pritchard and Tiggerman (2008) found that time spent exercising within a fitness centre was positively associated to disordered eating and negatively related to body esteem. From a sample of fitness centre members, women who spent more time exercising outside the gym environment had significantly less disordered eating and self-objectification and more positive body image than women who spent more time exercising within the gym environment.  Additionally, women who spent more time exercising within the fitness centre were more likely to exercise due to appearance related reasons than those who exercised more outside the fitness centre.

Interestingly, amongst women exercising in the gym, those who spent more time participating in cardio-based exercised were more likely to engage in self-objectification and eating disorder behaviours than those who engaged in yoga based exercise classes. This relationship was somewhat explained by the fact that women engaged in cardiovascular exercise were motivated by appearance focused reasons such as weight control. These findings suggest that although exercising can lead to health benefits, doing so for reasons such as weight control, body tone and attractiveness can lead to significant body image concerns and disordered eating behaviours.

These findings raise the question: should fitness centres ethically be encouraging exercise for weight loss reasons or should they be encouraging exercise for health and fitness? Until this change is instituted in fitness centres, I think that women need to carefully evaluate why they are engaging in exercise and the impact that those reasons may have on their health and wellbeing.