Winning workouts: Young women prefer emphasis on health over good looks

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Women who exercise chiefly to improve their appearance like their workouts better and stick with them longer if the instructors in exercise classes emphasize the health benefits of the workout over improved appearance, according to a recent study.

Researchers at Ohio State University and East Carolina University studied nearly 100 college-age women who have what they call "social physique anxiety" -- a disorder in which someone chronically worries that others are critiquing his or her body.

"Women who have this disorder usually are interested in exercise to improve their appearance, but an instructor who emphasizes physique during a workout may deter such students from coming back," said Brian Focht, assistant professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State, and a co-author of the study.

The study, which was published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, indicated women in the study reported that they enjoyed a step aerobics class more when the instructor focused on how the workout was making them more fit.

Even though most of the women studied took the class primarily because they were concerned about their body image, they enjoyed the class less and were less likely to take another if the instructor emphasized how a particular exercise would tone their legs, slim their waists, or otherwise improve their appearance, the researchers found.

The effect went beyond what instructors said, the researchers found.

"Instructors who wear form-fitting attire and make appearance-oriented comments may create class atmospheres, that emphasize physique," the researchers concluded. "Conversely, wearing more casual clothes and making health-oriented comments may foster more of a health orientation and draw attention away from appearance-related issues."

The study makes sense to her, said Wendy Stuhldreher, a professor in the department of health at Slippery Rock State University.

"If you reprioritize, you'll stick with it," she said. "When you're improving health, that's for a lifetime. That gives much more benefits than just the fleeting satisfaction of fitting into something."

Fitness directors at area health clubs say young women are more likely to join because they're concerned about their appearance, but middle-aged and older women are interested chiefly in health benefits.

"Most people come to a gym not because their triglyceride level is high, but because they can't fit into their size 12 jeans," said Mark Puchany, 48, fitness director for Club 1 in Shadyside.

"Young women do it more for body image. A middle-aged or older woman is going to be more interested in health benefits," said Rebecca Smith, 36, fitness director and co-owner of New Life Lady Fitness in Swissvale.

Amy Schneider, 27, the group fitness coordinator at the Downtown Athletic Club, said the motivation for women to exercise tends to vary from region to region.

Before returning to Pittsburgh, where she has family, she taught exercise classes in Miami and New York City.

"Miami is a very appearance-driven place," Ms. Schneider said. "I'd have people come to me and say they wanted to lose 5 pounds in one week. I'd explain that that isn't healthy, but they didn't care. But I found that people stuck with the program a lot longer when I talked about health issues. The people who came for personal appearance didn't last long in the class."

In New York there was a rough balance between those clients who came to her for appearance reasons and those motivated by health concerns, Ms. Schneider said. In Pittsburgh, she said, health concerns predominate.

They emphasize the health benefits of exercise because that's the right thing to do, said Mr. Puchany, Ms. Smith, and Ms. Schneider.

"Exercise is preventative medicine," Mr. Puchany said. "It's up to fitness professionals to talk more about this in their classes. It's more about fitness than about thinness."

"We have a wide range of women, but most of them are here more for the health benefits," Ms. Smith said. "I'm more likely to have a woman say, 'My cholesterol dropped 20 points,' than 'I've lost 20 pounds.' We really push the health benefits as opposed to body image."

"I'll bring in literature that I find online about health benefits," Ms. Schneider said.

Fitness clients' motivations still vary.

Anna Uskova, 41, of Point Breeze, an anesthesiologist at UPMC Shadyside, attends group exercises classes at Club 1, and also lifts weights and takes yoga classes. The principal reason she works out, Dr. Uskova said, is "to look good."

Her friend, Renee Taylor Ranier, 42, of Highland Park, an anesthetist, said she works out "just for fitness, stress relief."

Lauren Gates, 26, of Shadyside, a German teacher, said she works out "to stay healthy, maintain weight."

Jack Kelly can be reached at or 412-263-1476.


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