A woman looking away from a mirror in a gym

Form versus wellbeing: do you really need to work out in front of a mirror?

Posted by for Wellbeing

Interactive fitness mirrors like the Vaha and Lululemon Mirror may be the latest in immersive home fitness trends, but the pandemic has shown writer Jennifer Barton how to finally appreciate the joy of exercise – anytime, anywhere – without a mirror’s guiding hand.

For as long as I can remember, exercise and fitness have been entwined with my own reflection. Like so many young girls growing up in 80s/90s-era New York, my first childhood experiences of fitness involved toddler ballet classes. At four, I couldn’t possibly know that catching my reflection in the mirror as I flitted around the room pretending to be a butterfly would prove to be so pivotal in shaping my understanding of exercise, my relationship to my body and my sense of self.

My pursuit of classical ballet doggedly continued throughout my childhood and teen years, long after it became evident it wasn’t the right path for me (wrong body type, wrong personality and, though I’m loath to admit it, not enough talent). 

Mirrors: useful guides or vehicles of self-hate?

Ballet was my entire life in those formative years, and I chose it at the expense of many other interests – especially fitness. I never played team sports or tried anything even vaguely outdoorsy, because the risk of injury was just too high.

When you’re a ballet dancer, the mirror in front of you is many things: a teacher, gently correcting the position of an errant arm or leg; a friend, urging you to have a bit of fun with that turn or jump you’ve been perfecting; a partner that seems to complement (though rarely compliment) your every move. 

Ballet positions require precision and constant practice. Seeing yourself doing the movements from a young age is helpful in learning to master the poses; those visual cues are just as essential in letting you know you’ve done something right as the way your body feels when things finally click into place.

Mirrors in ballet are a guide, a coach and an undeniable asset… unless they turn against you. I can’t quite remember how old I was when this happened, but in my teens, my reflection suddenly became more frenemy than friend. It stopped showing me the positives; instead, it would show me a wobbly, nervous dancer standing on her toes rather than the goddess of strength and delicacy I’d hoped to find staring back at me. 

Worse still, the mirror became an accomplice in critiquing more than my dancing: it taunted me by telling me I wasn’t pretty or thin enough for ballet or teenage life. I became obsessed with my reflection, seeking out certain spots at the barre in order to position myself in front of ‘skinny mirrors’.

Like any addictive and damaging co-dependent relationship, even though the mirror did me no favours, I couldn’t look away. Long after I stopped dancing in my late teens, I continued to seek out that mirror whenever I worked out. I chose boutique-style classes in studios that looked much like the ballet ones of my youth, only ever trying ballet-adjacent classes like pilates, yoga and barre

I even started adult ballet lessons at one point (in many ways, the most sadistic thing I could have thought up for myself), shortly after having had a baby. Staring at my aching and leaking 30-something body in that wall-to-wall mirrored hellscape, while the voice of my reflection mocked me relentlessly, was torture. 

With all of the mental turmoil that accompanied pretty much every workout, you’d think I would have tried an alternative. The truth is, I didn’t know fitness could exist without a mirror.

The benefits of working out in front of a mirror

Mirrors are such a common fixture in most gyms and fitness studios that you probably don’t even notice they’re there. Even when clients are obviously self-conscious, instructors regularly advocate for the benefits of working out in front of a mirror.

“If you can look past that and focus on your form, technique and alignment, then having a mirror in front of you really is quite beneficial,” says Korin Nolan, founder of Power Pilates UK and Dynamic Pilates TV.  

“Performing exercises in correct alignment is one of the key focuses in pilates,” she tells Stylist.co.uk. “Sometimes it’s quite surprising, even when you think you’re in the correct position, you’re not. So it’s good to be able to make those adjustments. Not only that, you can also hopefully see your progress over time.” 

There’s plenty of science to back the benefits of mirrors, too. “Studies around mirrors have found if you work out in front of a mirror you are likely to put more effort in, be more helpful to others, less likely to cheat and judge others less,” explains Dr Josephine Perry, sport psychologist and author of The 10 Pillars of Success.

Plenty of studios work in the dark or without mirrors

CrossFit boxes and fitness studios often operate without mirrors or much natural light.
CrossFit boxes and fitness studios often operate without mirrors or much natural light.

Of course, you’re just as likely to find trainers who will argue that mirrors aren’t at all essential to your fitness regime. CrossFit boxes typically don’t have mirrors: reasons include everything from postural alignment (where you look is key to proper lifting) to not wanting clients to focus on appearance and instead work on improving performance. 

Nightclub-style dark studios have also been purported to help with fitness motivation; many of these have mirrors but with dimmed lighting, so the emphasis is less on staring at yourself – or trying to measure up to what someone else is doing – and more about having fun while getting your heart rate up. Coaches and instructors can also take on the role of mirrors in a fitness class.

“Although Clubbercise works in mirrored studios, the ‘perfect’ class would be taught without them so that people can just relax, let go and enjoy the music,” says Clubbercise founder Claire Burlison. 

“We don’t want people to worry about how they look and our instructors are on hand to advise people on their technique when they’re performing moves like squats and lunges.”

Home workouts are a great opportunity to move without a mirror

All it took was a global pandemic for me to finally have my first-ever workout without a mirror. It was a revelation for me to get through that first Zoom yoga class (my video turned off, of course) and not feel anything other than blissful and strong. I’ve now added stationary biking, strength, barre and pilates classes to my repertoire: these are happening in the most random of places, like my living room, tucked behind the side of my bed or staring at the spines of books on my cluttered bookshelf.

At 39, I finally understand that fitness isn’t about how my body looks, but how my mind feels. These days, exercise isn’t something I have to force into my schedule but a hobby I work everything else around; I’m finding that without the emotional baggage my reflection brings with it, I want to explore new kinds of fitness. I even recently bought a skateboard!

Working out without mirrors isn’t for everyone, but for me, it’s been a game-changer, and not just because I want to work out more. I’m finding my confidence and self-worth are starting to improve the less I rely on mirrors in my daily life.

But there’s been a rise of home workout mirrors

Interestingly, I may have picked the worst time for this life change. I’m pretty sure 2021 is the year of the immersive home mirror: see the Vaha, NordicTrack’s Vault and the Lululemon Mirror, founded by a former ballerina, Brynn Putnam (who, fun fact, used to be a ballet classmate of mine).

These interactive home gym mirrors are a personal trainer, discreet fitness tool and a stylish interior choice. They also cater to those who crave flexibility, allowing people to access a range of workouts at home (the Vaha, for example, offers a mix of live and on-demand classes as well as 1-2-1 personal training sessions, using live trainers and AI motion tracking). These tools are also suited to those who find gym atmospheres intimidating or stressful.

Surroundings are important for getting the most out of your workout

Like Snow White’s Evil Queen, my mistress may have been a mirror telling me things I didn’t want it to. But let’s not forget that there are plenty of other factors that can make gym environments intimidating spaces, from Olympian-like classmates to complicated equipment.

Vaha founder Valerie Bures-Bönström believes: “Working out in front of something as simple as a mirror helps us to break down a number of barriers to fitness. The last 16 months have taught us that exercise is more than sweat and reps; it’s taking the time for self-care and being kind to our bodies through stretching and meditation.”

One thing’s for certain: surroundings matter when you’re working out. Feeling comfortable in our environment helps us to perform better in sport, according to Dr Perry.

And, as I’ve started telling myself, showing up with the right mindset is already an achievement in itself.

“Aiming for perfection is not only pointless (because it doesn’t exist) but also harmful as we will always be reaching for something unreachable and harm our wellbeing in doing so. If you still find those perfectionistic thoughts creeping in, try some distraction techniques; music or podcasts are great, so you have something else to focus on while you exercise,” advises Dr Perry.

Ultimately, mirrors aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to fitness and performance. If you feel like you concentrate better and find them useful, keep on working out in front of one. But don’t be afraid to step away from your reflection; it might just be the transformative boost you need.

Step away from the mirror and join us for a feel-good sweat fest over on the Strong Women Training Club. We’ve got plenty of dumbbell, bodyweight and mobility classes to chopse from.

Image: Getty

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