Most men at the gym don't want to get fit — they're afraid of being considered fat. A study published last week in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that gym attendance in men is fueled by fears about body fat and associated feelings of guilt and shame.
Researchers at the University of Lincoln in England found men's thoughts on their body mass index (BMI) or muscles weren't predictors of gym attendance. Instead, perceptions of body fat effectively predicted how often they go to the gym.
"The researchers found that men worried about body fat were more likely than others to undertake spontaneous, unplanned work-outs — and warned that these 'sporadic' exercise patterns tend to be difficult to sustain over time," read the university's press release on the study.
For instance, focusing on things like building five pounds of muscle, instead of zeroing in on your discomfort with your belly fat is typically a better motivator, Men's Fitness pointed out. Focusing on one particular area of worry can result in an unbalanced workout regimen as well. "Framing things more positively can create healthy habits," the magazine wrote.
The study looked at 100 men with slightly elevated BMI who said they worked out for about an hour two or three times a week. The men completed a self-report questionnaire and a second test aimed a evaluation non-conscious motivations for gym attendance, which recorded the time it took them to associate certain words with themselves.
The findings in the study, which claimed to be the first to look at men's body attitudes alongside conscious and non-conscious motivations for going to the gym, called into question the portrayal of an "ideal body" in mass media. The study found that in the long-term body image concerns aren't the best to way to motivate gym attendance. Instead, trainers and health professionals should lean on "pro-active goal-setting and personal autonomy," the press release read.
"Anyone can be affected by what they see online, the social cues images can give, and the popular conceptions of an ‘ideal body image’," Dr. David Keatley, from the University of Lincoln's school of psychology, said in a statement. "With the recent growth of ‘selfies’ and the return of muscle-bound Hollywood hero icons like Vin Diesel and Hugh Jackman, there’s a real risk that males may be more influenced to attend the gym more regularly and workout to a point where it becomes dangerous or detracts from their wellbeing."
One big takeaway from the study is that body image can be a struggle for men as well as women. "This study is important in showing that whilst they may be more unlikely to admit it, body dissatisfaction and dysmorphia can and do affect males as well as females, and therefore should be investigated fully," Keatley said in a statement.