Women's health

Young women like exercising near flabbier folks at the gym

Nov. 7, 2012 at 3:39 PM ET

Well, this is unsettling for some of us: A small study suggests that college-age women were quicker to walk over to and start exercising on a piece of equipment when it was next to a less fit woman. 

Researchers found it took the young women included in the study about a minute to approach an unused fitness machine and begin exercising on it when it was beside a woman who wasn't very fit. But it took her nearly three minutes when a peer was in better shape. If no peer was present, it took more than two minutes to get going.

Study co-author James Kulik, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego says they don't know for sure why the women were slower to approach a fit peer -- or gravitated toward the unfit one -- but he suspects that they think they will look or perform better in comparison.

In the study, which appears in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, scientists observed 75 female undergraduates at the campus fitness center. They planted one woman on a Nautilus chest press machine dressed in shorts and a tight tank top designed to show off her strong muscles and slim figure. They timed how long it took before other young women approached an available piece of strength training equipment -- a thigh abduction machine -- right next to her.

For the unfit condition, this same young woman covered up her buff physique with a baggy sweatshirt and pants, and she wore padding on her stomach and thighs to make her look flabby.

Researchers found that the presence of a female who look less athletic appeared to attract other young women to the vicinity quicker, whether the approaching exerciser was fit or unfit herself. But once there, being near an unfit person did not motivate a woman to do a longer workout and it didn't increase her body satisfaction after she was done exercising.

Perhaps exercising next to an unfit female was appealing to a college-age woman because it was a visual reminder that her own body isn't as big or as weak as someone else's, or maybe she hoped other gym-goers would think she looked like a jock in comparison.

When asked if slightly older women might act similarly at the gym, Kulik says that younger women are more prone to body image and eating disorder problems and he suspects that women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s would be less susceptible to these effects and possibly more comfortable in their own skin.

While Kulik admits people probably don't go to the health club with a conscious plan to exercise only near certain fitness types, he suggests that deliberate choices are sometimes made when the fitness level of someone working out nearby is relatively extreme -- either highly fit or unfit -- and therefore captures your attention.

So the next time some stud is running fast splits on the treadmill next to yours or someone is pumping more iron than you could ever lift, don't be intimidated or discouraged. Focus on accomplishing your own fitness goals -- regardless of the person exercising nearby.

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