Health and wellness professionals are often united by a common goal of wanting to help others adopt a physically active, nutritionally balanced, and mindfulness-centered lifestyle. As many of us know, this is no easy task. We are constantly facing an array of barriers to exercise and adherence to living a healthy lifestyle, including but not limited to lack of time, lack of resources, or lack of motivation and self-confidence. The latter will be the focus of this post through exploring a mental roadblock experienced by many, social physique anxiety (SPA). In present society, it is a common occurrence for one’s body to be on constant display. This can cause an array of emotions to arise as any social context is subject to human opinion and judgment. Schlenker and Leary (1982) introduced self-presentation theory, or the framework suggesting that people make an attempt to influence the perceptions of those around them. According to these authors, individuals may bring special attention to certain aspects of the self that they are fond of (personality aspects or accomplishments) while deemphasizing others that cause particular amounts of stress or anxiety (i.e. physique or body image).

One realm of importance related to self-presentation is in the discipline of sport and exercise. Leary (1992) found that self-presentation impacted one’s choice of exercise environment, as individuals who had a tendency to evaluate other’s perceptions of their physique in a negative light avoided exercise settings in which their bodies would be on display (i.e. aerobics classes, jogging areas, or swimming pools). This fear of negative self-perception was associated with complete exercise avoidance in efforts to reduce or eliminate feelings of social anxiety (Leary, 1992). Hart, Leary, and Rejeski (1989) defined this fear as social physique anxiety (SPA), or feelings of anxiety as a result of having one’s physique evaluated by others. SPA is a derivative of social anxiety directly related to the responses of the social judgment of one’s physique (Hart et al., 1989)

Popular exercise settings, such as gyms or health clubs, are often characterized by masses of people engaging in aerobics or resistance activities that present the body moving in a variety of ways. This can be either facilitative or debilitative for those who engage in exercise. Hausenblas, Brewer, and Van Raalte (2004) found that for those who may lack confidence in their own self-image, perhaps feeling overweight or lacking muscle tone, experienced feelings of unease and discouragement regarding exercise participation. The opposite was also found to be true as those who perceived themselves as being physically fit and having a slender physique enjoyed participating in exercise.

My interest in SPA led me to design my Master’s thesis around a mixed-methodological research data collection focusing on the relationship between SPA and self-efficacy among college-aged students in physical activity classes. I chose to administer surveys and conduct personal interviews with hopes to gain greater insight into the thought processes of those with particularly high and low levels of SPA. In concurrence with previous research, my study found that females had higher SPA than males (Crawford & Eklund, 1994; Hart et al. 1989), and those with high-levels of self-efficacy experienced less SPA and vice versa (Katula et al., 1998). I was surprised to find that nearly as many men as women experienced an average to high amount of SPA, and that many participants said they were not previously aware of how body-conscious they are while exercising. What was most interesting to me, however, were the themes that came out of the interview portion.

Individuals who were classified as having high levels of SPA reported that they were displeased with their physique, felt the need for physique improvement, and were overly concerned with how their physique appeared to others. This same group reported feeling an overwhelming amount of societal and cultural pressure (i.e. from peers, family, friends, the media) to uphold a certain body image. Responses indicated that participants elicited a need to influence the perceptions of others to see their physique as leaner, more muscular, or athletically fit in efforts to deemphasize those parts of their physique they may find less desirable (such as the stomach, thighs, or “love-handles”). These pressures led to feelings of discomfort and apprehension when in social settings where the body is commonly on display, such as being at the gym or at the pool, due to the tight and revealing clothing that is typically worn in these environments.

Those with low levels of SPA indicated being pleased with their physique, thus leading to a sense of body related pride and self-confidence. Similar to those with high SPA, particular physique qualities of importance to participants included muscle tone, a slim build, and an athletic body image, which many of the low SPA participants felt they possessed. Another common theme among those with low SPA was a lack of concern with how their physique appeared to others, but rather having a healthy body that allowed them to be physically active and would add years to their life.

So in summary, we know that SPA exists among college-aged men and women in exercise settings, we know that having high levels of SPA decreases self-efficacy and self-confidence, and we know that we want to help encourage people to be physically active. Connecting the dots is the challenge here. A few key tips I would recommend for working with individuals who may be demonstrating signs of SPA are as follows:

  • Create a “judgment-free” zone: Tell clients to check their judgment at the door and adopt a positive attitude as soon as they enter the exercise space. If it’s a gym, write positive motivational quotes on the mirrors with dry erase markers or make signs to display around. The key is to help individuals feel comfortable and confident in the environment without feeling as if they are being judged from the second they walk in the door.

  • Know your clients: Establishing a sense of rapport is huge! The use of a motivational interview at the beginning of a training relationship has numerous benefits to the trainer and trainee. Find out what motivates the client, what they are anxious about, and set some goals. This way if you start to see your client slip into a negative mindset, you will be able to pull from your motivational tool belt to find a strategy that works for him/her individually. This may mean avoiding the mirrored walls for a while, and that’s okay.

  • Encourage positive self-talk: Start to work on eliminating the negative self-statements (“I hate my thighs”, “I’ll never be as thin as that girl”, “I can’t do this!”) and replace them with positive sayings (“I love my blue eyes”, “I am beautiful the way I am” etc.) Encouraging positivity from day one will help build self-confidence and lead for a greater chance of exercise adherence and enjoyment.

Creating a positive, judgment free, encouraging exercise environment will help decrease anxiety and increase self-confidence and adherence. The first step in changing the body is changing the mind, and today is the perfect day to start.

References: Crawford, S., & Eklund, R. C. (1994). Social physique anxiety, reasons for exercise, and attitudes toward exercise settings. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16, 70-84.

Hart, E. A., Leary, M. R., & Rejeski, W. J. (1989). The measurement of social physique anxiety. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 11, 94-104

Hausenblas, H. A., Brewer, B. W., & Van Raalte, J. L. (2004). Self-presentation and exercise. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 3-18.

Katula, J. A., McAuley, E., Mihalko, S. L., & Bane, S. M. (1998). Mirror, mirror on the wall…exercise environment influences on self-efficacy. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 13, 319-332.

Leary, M. R. (1992). Self-presentational processes in exercise and sport. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 14, 339.

Schlenker, B. R., & Leary, M. R. (1982). Social anxiety and self-presentation: A conceptualization model. Psychological Bulletin, 92, 641-669.