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MIGHT PLIGHT

THE SOCIAL ANXIETY FELT BY MEN IN THE WEIGHTLIFTING ENVIRONMENT

Cyr, Alex; Munroe-Chandler, Krista, Ph.D.; Gammage, Kimberley, Ph.D.

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000466
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Apply It! Be aware of the specific elements and scenarios in your fitness facility that may elicit anxiety in men and work to improve the environment to eliminate or alleviate those feelings of anxiety. Be especially aware of these scenarios in gyms where there might be a number of clients who are bodybuilders.

Consider the development of all-male fitness classes to alleviate perceived anxiety and encourage physical activity in men.

Consider the physical space and the addition of equipment in your fitness facility to eliminate conflicts over resources.

Alex Cyr is a Master’s Thesis candidate at the University of Windsor whose research focuses on exercise psychology, anxiety, and personality in sport.

Krista Munroe-Chandler, Ph.D., is recognized for her work in the psychology of sport and exercise. She is a professor in the Faculty of Human Kinetics at the University of Windsor, Canada. Her research interests include imagery use in sport and exercise, exercise stereotypes, as well as youth sport development. She works with athletes of all ages, levels, and sport, helping them achieve their personal performance goals.

Kimberley Gammage, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON, Canada. Her research examines the relationship between exercise and body image across the lifespan. She is also the director of the SeniorFit exercise program at the Brock-Niagara Centre for Health & Well-being.

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest and do not have any financial disclosures.

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INTRODUCTION

As health and fitness professionals and researchers, we continue to struggle with the following question: how do we get people to be more active? Despite our efforts in promoting physical activity and exercise, many people remain inactive. In fact, more than half of the adults in the U.S. fail to meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine's weekly recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a regular basis (1). The inactivity levels are similar in Canada. The 2012 and 2013 Canadian Health Measures Surveys (CHMS) indicate that adults ages 18 to 79 years accumulated an average of only 12 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, or 84 minutes per week, thus failing to meet the aforementioned target (2). Notwithstanding our continued attempts to promote the importance of physical activity, the Canadian adult population is becoming less fit. A large percentage of adults between the ages of 20 and 69 years have suboptimal health benefit ratings in cardiorespiratory (aerobic) fitness, musculoskeletal fitness, and body composition (3). Based on comparable fitness measures in the 1981 and the 2012 and 2013 CHMS, in most instances, results are more favorable in the earlier survey, implying that the fitness of the nation has declined over the past two decades. This decline in fitness is a cause for concern, as disease outcomes inversely related to regular physical activity include hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease (3).

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SOCIAL ANXIETY

Because of our collective decline in activity as a population and the well-known effects of inactivity, researchers aim to identify the barriers to exercise engagement. Although the answer is multifaceted, social anxiety has been identified as a potential barrier to exercise (4). Social anxiety is exhibited when people are motivated to make an impression but doubt their capabilities of doing so (5). This explains why encounters involving ambiguity or novel tasks (e.g., doing a new exercise), as well as public exposure (e.g., in a gym/public fitness setting), can often evoke anxiety. In fact, any situation that emphasizes others’ evaluations of one’s body will result in an increase in self-objectification, and exercise is a situation that can make individuals more aware of others’ evaluations of their bodies (6). When people try to create the impression of being fit, strong, or coordinated and are unable to do so, anxiety may ensue (5).

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MEN’S ANXIETY IN A WEIGHT TRAINING ENVIRONMENT?

Although perceptions of thinness and working out near men are factors influencing social anxiety in women (7), such factors might be different in men. Despite previous researchers highlighting specific situations where anxiety for men may arise including working out, being around a female, or being around another male who is attractive, little research has examined the social anxiety of men in an exercise environment (8). Notwithstanding this initial evidence, researchers have focused almost exclusively on women’s anxiety in the fitness domain. Attempting to alleviate the anxiety women feel in fitness facilities, modifications to their workout environments have been made such as the creation of female-only areas and female-only establishments. It is unknown if similar modifications should be afforded to men. As such, there is a need for research examining social anxiety in men in a weight-training environment (i.e., gym).

Although the research examining men’s social anxiety in an exercise setting is much smaller in breadth, it is no less significant than the research on women in exercise settings. In fact, social physique anxiety in men has been positively correlated with drive for muscularity (9). The drive for muscularity, which is most prevalent in men, represents a dissatisfaction with one’s level of muscularity and the desire to achieve increased muscularity. In an investigation of the relationship between muscularity and social physique anxiety in college men, a significant relationship between social physique anxiety and appearance was uncovered (8). Regardless of the college males’ percent body fat and lean body mass, thoughts about their own appearance and muscularity contributed to their social physique anxiety (8). As such, when working with male clients or conducting research with male participants, it is important to acknowledge the attention men place on muscularity and the value on global appearance.

The gym is an environment in which social anxiety may ensue because of the focus placed on physical appearance. In addition to the concern many have over their weight (e.g., body fat), many men worry about looking too scrawny and engage in weight training to meet societal aesthetic standards of upper body muscularity and improve their musculature (11).

The gym is an environment in which social anxiety may ensue because of the focus placed on physical appearance. In addition to the concern many have over their weight (e.g., body fat), many men worry about looking too scrawny and engage in weight training to meet societal aesthetic standards of upper body muscularity and improve their musculature (11).

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THE STUDY

Given that social physique anxiety is very much present in the male demographic (10), it was important to determine what makes men anxious in the weight room. As such, we examined aspects of the social environment that can affect men’s social anxiety during weight training in a public facility.

We recruited 299 male gym-goers from three fitness facilities in the Southwestern Ontario region (see Table 1). We targeted a university cardiovascular and weight facility (Gym 1), a full-service fitness center (Gym 2), and a body-building facility (Gym 3). More than 70% of the men indicated having lifted weights for at least 1 year for an average of 4 days per week for 6 hours per week.

TABLE 1

TABLE 1

The men in our study were asked to identify any aspect of the social environment, from a provided list of 30 scenarios, that may make them feel socially anxious in the gym setting (see Table 2 for top 10 most frequently cited scenarios). They also completed the Drive for Muscularity attitudinal subscale, which includes six items assessing one’s attitude with respect to achieving a more muscular physique (11). The men in our study varied widely in age, body mass index (BMI), and weight across gyms.

The most frequently selected scenarios (see Table 2) in which men indicated they experience anxiety in the weight room, regardless of location, included the following: 1) If someone was hovering over me wanting to use the equipment (33%); 2) If a spotter had to rush to assist me with the weight (32%); 3) If someone commented on my appearance (25%); 4) If my form was corrected by a trainer (24%); 5) In the presence of an attractive woman (24%); and 6) If I was unable to push the weight (24%).

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

Weightlifters with high drive for muscularity reported feeling anxious in significantly more scenarios than weightlifters with low drive for muscularity. This may seem to suggest that fitness facilities where patrons prioritize muscle gain, like bodybuilding gyms, may be in need of heightened attention in research, for individuals most driven to gain muscle mass are more likely to feel anxious in various scenarios.

Weightlifters with high drive for muscularity reported feeling anxious in significantly more scenarios than weightlifters with low drive for muscularity. This may seem to suggest that fitness facilities where patrons prioritize muscle gain, like bodybuilding gyms, may be in need of heightened attention in research, for individuals most driven to gain muscle mass are more likely to feel anxious in various scenarios.

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DISCUSSION

Based on our study, men do report feeling anxious in a variety of scenarios in public fitness facilities. A possible outcome of men feeling anxious in exercise settings is a lowered desire to exercise. As social anxiety can be a significant barrier to exercise (5), challenges for future researchers and fitness programmers are to attempt to control the environment where anxiety can ensue, as well as to identify additional anxiety-inducing aspects of the exercise environments (e.g., clothing, mirrors, number of observers). Furthermore, men’s drive for muscularity (the desire to appear more muscular) is linked to perceived anxiety in many scenarios. We can conclude that men with a high drive for muscularity are prone to perceive feelings of anxiety in more fitness-specific scenarios than men with a low drive for muscularity.

Despite women’s anxiety in exercise settings being well documented, there has been no study assessing women’s top sources of anxiety in the weight room. According to Women’s Health, the fears of judgment, not being fit enough, going to a new gym, and starting a new exercise plan are common anxiety-causing factors in women (12). These sources of anxiety suggest that similar scenarios listed by men may cause anxiety in women as well, but more research is needed to discover which scenarios elicit most anxiety in women.

Although more research is needed to confirm our findings (i.e., bigger sample, different geographical locations, various ages), it is important to recognize that men do feel anxious in the weight room, so that strategies to help minimize their anxiety may be developed. From an applied perspective, the next step in this field of research is to determine ways in which the weight training environment can be modified to diminish the anxiety men feel in the weight room.

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SOLUTIONS

Based on our findings, we suggest the following possible changes to the fitness environment to decrease social anxiety in males.

  • - Invest in All-Male Gyms. Given the popularity of female-only establishments and fitness classes, investing in all-male gyms might be worthwhile. A total of 24% of our male gym-goers cited the presence of attractive women as an anxiety-causing factor.
  • - Group Training Increases Competency. Small group training might help men feel less like the focus of attention. Working with small groups also fosters a focus on form, and the development of proper technique, which in turn might make men feel more competent in their ability to engage in weight-training exercises.
  • - More Gym Space = Less Anxiety. Another solution may be an increase in physical gym space and equipment availability. A total of 33% of our males indicated feeling anxious when others are hovering around them, waiting to use a piece of equipment. Larger spaces and more equipment would prevent people from clustering.
  • - New to Exercise? Get Oriented. Offering male gym-goers — especially new exercisers — orientation programs when they begin to exercise may help reduce training mistakes and ultimately reduce their anxiety. New exercisers may be more likely to use too much weight and require a spotter’s assistance. By learning fundamental exercise skills, like form and proper movement, they may solicit less attention from spotters and trainers, fostering self-confidence and avoiding an anxiety-causing scenario.
  • - Buddy Up with a Trainer. Elsewhere, more personal trainer availability may work to decrease these training mistakes, as well as normalize the idea of working out with a trainer and eliminate any feelings of social shame associated with requiring assistance for one’s workout. It may be advantageous for personal trainers and fitness professionals working out in the gym to build relationships with their clients to reduce feelings of anxiety associated with assistance and foster a coach-athlete relationship, rather than taking on a role of corrector or attendant. Instead, fostering a coach-athlete relationship and normalizing intervention when needed with all gym-goers could work to reduce or eliminate anxiety felt by men in the weight room.
  • - Feeling Anxious in the Weight Room? You are Not Alone. A potentially powerful course of action might be to modify society’s perceptions of the weight-training environment, where men are supposed and expected to thrive. By normalizing the construct of male anxiety in gym settings, we can foster conversations and encourage people to feel more comfortable with their insecurities in an exercise environment — thus helping us learn more about possible solutions and interventions to alleviate those feelings of anxiety and promote physically active and mentally healthy lifestyles for all exercisers.
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BRIDGING THE GAP

To date, most research examining anxiety in the weight room has been conducted with women. It is evident, however, that men also perceive themselves to be anxious in certain situations in weight training environments. Knowing what situations and contexts make men feel most anxious, and that a relationship exists between perceived anxiety and the drive for muscularity in men, we can more purposefully seek solutions to make exercise environments inviting for all.

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References

1. Haskell WL, Lee IM, Pate RR, et al. Physical activity and public health: updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(8):1423–34. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17762377.
2. Statistics Canada. Directly Measured Physical Activity of Canadians, 2012 and 2013. Canadian Health Measures Survey; 2015. Available from: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/150218/dq150218c-eng.htm.
3. Statistics Canada. Fitness of Canadian Adults: Results From the 2007–2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey; 2010. Available from: https://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2010001/article/11064-eng.htm.
4. Carron AV, Prapavessis H. Self-presentation and group influence. Small Group Res [Internet]. 1997 28(4). Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1046496497284002.
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6. Gammage KK, Hall CR, Martin Ginis KA. Self-presentation in exercise contexts: differences between high and low frequency exercisers. J Appl Soc Psych. [Internet]. 2004;34:1638–51. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2004.tb02791.x/abstract.
7. Cash TF, Morrow JA, Hrabosky JI, Perry AA. How has body image changed? A cross-sectional investigation of college women and men from 1983 to 2001. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2004;72(6):1081–9. Available from: http://web4.uwindsor.ca/users/j/jarry/main.nsf/032ecd0df8f83bdf8525699900571a93/aa9ed943e56182bf85256abe5bc3f6/$FILE/Cash%20et%20al%20(2004).pdf.
8. Marquez DX, McAuley E. Physique anxiety and self-efficacy influences on perceptions of physical evaluations. Soc Behav Pers. [Internet]. 2001;29(7): Available from: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/sbp/sbp/2001/00000029/00000007/art00003.
9. McCreary DR, Saucier DM. Drive for muscularity, body comparison, and social physique anxiety in men and women. Body Image. 2009;6(1):24–30. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18996066.
10. Sabiston CM, Pila E, Pinsonnault-Bilodeau G, Cox AE. Social physique experiences in physical activity: a comprehensive synthesis of research studies focused on measurement, theory, and predictors and outcomes. Int Rev Sport Exerc Psychol. [Internet]. 2014;7(1):158–83. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263126312_Social_physique_anxiety_experiences_in_physical_activity_a_comprehensive_synthesis_of_research_studies_focused_on_measurement_theory_predictors_and_outcomes.
11. McCreary DR, Sasse DK. An exploration of the drive for muscularity in adolescent boys and girls. J Am Coll Health. 2000 [cited March 24, 2000];48(6):297–304. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07448480009596271.
12. Badkar A. Anxious About Exercising in Public? Try These Confidence Boosters. Women’s Health [Internet]. 2018; [cited 2018 March 2]; Available from: http://www.womenshealthmag.co.uk/health/stress/8103/exercise-anxiety/.
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Recommended Readings

McCreary DR, Sasse DK. An exploration of the drive for muscularity in adolescent boys and girls. J Am Coll Health [Internet]. 2000;48(6):297–304. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07448480009596271.
    Leary MR. Social anxiousness: the construct and its measurement. J Pers Assess. 1983;47(1):66–75. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327752jpa4701_8.
    Keywords:

    Anxiety; Bodybuilding Gyms; Drive for Muscularity; Social Physique Anxiety; Weight Room

    © 2019 American College of Sports Medicine.