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Workout warning: Beware photos of buff bods

If you read muscle magazines while working out your own muscles, you may want to rethink your routine.
Image: Reading while working out
Which magazine you pick up at the gym may impact how you feel about your workout.Getty Images stock

If you read muscle magazines while working out your own muscles, you may want to rethink your routine.

Though it might seem like an obvious choice while exercising, reading fitness magazines full of images of six-pack abs, super-sculpted arms and rock-hard thighs may undo one of the benefits of exercise, according to new research.

“The post-exercise feel-good [effect] that we usually see was pretty much wiped out when people were looking at the magazines with ultra-fit images in them,” says study author Ann Wertz Garvin, a professor of health and physical education at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater.

Better choices? Essentially anything else, she says: National Geographic, Oprah, even Horse & Rider.

Garvin and colleagues recruited 92 college women to spend half an hour on an exercise bike while reading either Oxygen magazine (a fitness magazine featuring very fit, muscular women), Oprah magazine (more general interest) or nothing at all. The women were randomly assigned to a reading category but were allowed to exercise at the intensity of their choice.

Results, which were presented recently at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis, showed that the group of women who read Oxygen while exercising were more anxious, depressed and in an all-around poorer mood after exercise than before, as determined by standardized psychological scales. By comparison, the groups of women who read Oprah or no magazine experienced expected improvements in their mood from exercise.

The results suggest that negative effects of reading ultra-fit magazines may cancel out the mood-boosting effects of exercise, says Garvin. Exactly why is unclear, though she speculates that women may become depressed because they feel they’ll never look as good as the magazine models or that the women already look fit but have low self-esteem and seeing the images doesn’t help.

Garvin says her team has also looked at this issue in men and preliminary data show that exercising guys, too, may be affected negatively by muscle magazines, but mainly by promoting anxiety not depression.

Other research has suggested that viewing images of "ideal" thin and tall fashion models can negatively impact women’s mood and body image, but Garvin says her research is the first to look at the impact of super-fit, muscular models.

Staying motivated
The findings are concerning because people who don’t feel good about exercise may not want to stick with a fitness program, she says.

Molly Kimball, a sports and lifestyle nutritionist and program coordinator at Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, says she’s not surprised by the results. “I think that same effect would be found whether someone was exercising or not.”

Kimball has worked with clients with body image issues who’ve brought in photos of fitness models with seemingly superhuman physiques and said that’s what they want to look like. Even clients who already look healthy and fit may complain that they don’t feel they look good or as good as the idealized images they see in the media, she says.

Oxygen’s group editorial director Jerry Kindela issued a statement saying that the magazine’s readers don’t seem to be complaining: “Based on the volume of mail Oxygen receives, more than 300,000 readers find Oxygen inspirational; many of them claim Oxygen has improved their lives substantially."

Among the satisfied customers is Melissa Gibbs, 38, who works out at Kimball’s gym. When walking on the treadmill, Oxygen is one of the magazines that she reads — and she doesn’t find it depressing at all. “To me, looking at images like these incredibly fit women, I find it inspiring,” she says.

She’s more bothered — and not at all inspired — by images in fashion magazines of skinny, leggy models with little muscle tone who look the way they do, in her opinion, primarily because of good genetics.

Mind over matter
Like many exercisers, Gibbs says reading on the treadmill helps in another important way — by taking her mind off of the monotony of the machine.

While she prefers to run outside or take a spinning class, when she hits the treadmill she reads — in addition to wearing headphones and listening to TV or music. “It’s really an effort to combat the incredible boredom of the treadmill,” she says. “I have to have a lot of stuff going on.”

That’s common among gym-goers and can indeed be beneficial to those who use the treadmill, stairclimber, stationary bike or elliptical machine, says Gary Sforzo, a professor of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.

Sforzo says there are two kinds of exercisers: associaters and dissociaters. Associaters tend to be hard-core exercise enthusiasts and athletes who are addicted to their heart rate monitors and tracking their performance every step of the way. They thrive on how they feel when they exercise and want to keep their head in the workout.

Not surprisingly, though, “most people are dissociaters,” he says. “These are people who don’t like to tune in to their bodies while exercising.”

Reading, listening to music or watching the tube can be a smart strategy to keep these people exercising and going for longer periods when they do because they get caught up in an article, music or show, Sforzo says.

One of the potential downsides, though, is that people who rely on distractions may not work out as intensely as they would if they focused on their performance, he and other experts note.

Kindela says Oxygen magazine does not endorse reading or engaging in other distracting activities while working out. "Oxygen routinely suggests that readers attend to the task at hand when exercising, and that’s why Oxygen recommends against reading books and magazines, or chatting away on cell phones, which will merely deflect from maximizing effort and meeting one’s goals. We recommend that readers visualize success when they exercise."

Sometimes, Sforzo cautions, tuning out from your workout may actually be hazardous to your health. “I’ve seen people fall off the treadmill trying to look up at a TV and taking a misstep.”