The Secret Reason So Many Men Go to the Gym

A woman looks at a painting in a Russian museum exploring body image issues

A woman looks at a painting in a Russian museum exploring body image issues | Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

For millions of men, going to the gym is a daily ritual. Their reasons may vary widely — from looking to lose weight to building muscle and getting chiseled. Some men even go to experience a place of solace; somewhere outside of the house and away from work where they can relax, hit the steam room, or just burn off some calories on the treadmill. But new research indicates there are actually body image issues at play driving more men to fitness centers than you might expect.

Body image issues aren’t typically associated with men, though they are fairly widespread. According to a recent study published in Psychology of Men & Masculinity, as many as 20% to 40% of American men are struggling with body image problems in some shape or form. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then, that a newer study has revealed such body image issues are spurring millions of men to hit the gym — even though many would probably never admit it.

Specifically, it’s “men’s hidden fears about body fat” that are driving gym attendance, according to a team of researchers from the University of Lincoln (U.K.) and Australia’s Curtin University. The study says these men are motivated by “feelings of guilt and shame rather than a desire to build muscle,” which may come as a surprise to many — even men who may not be willing to admit it to themselves.

A man works out at a 24 Hour Fitness gym

A man works out at a 24 Hour Fitness gym | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you were to meander through your neighborhood 24 Hour Fitness or Gold’s Gym, it’s unlikely that you would overhear many men discussing their struggles with body image or deep-rooted fears related to body fat. Instead, you’d probably hear discussions related to muscle-building strategies and techniques. Body image just typically isn’t something men discuss openly.

But if this new study is any indication, it’s a primary motivator for why so many men are actually at the gym to begin with. While this in and of itself isn’t a problem, the research team found, when these gym-goers can’t come to terms with what’s actually driving them to work out, they also can’t or won’t put together an effective fitness strategy. Instead, they end up wasting their time by doing sporadic exercises that provide little benefit in the long term.

“The study is the first of its kind to examine men’s body attitudes alongside both their conscious (explicit) and non-conscious (implicit) motivations for attending the gym,” a University of Lincoln press release said. “The findings could help health and fitness professionals improve gym attendance in the long term by focusing on pro-active goal-setting and personal autonomy, rather than body image.”

A man inspects himself in the mirror

A man inspects himself in the mirror |

Dr. David Keatley, a behavioral specialist at the University of Lincoln, echoed that sentiment. “Coaches, trainers, and even ‘gym buddies’ need to be aware of individuals’ motivations and reasons for attending a gym. Spontaneous gym goers are more likely to be motivated by guilt, shame, or pressure, so it’s important to turn this around and place a focus on positive feelings of achievement and pride, fostering a long-term healthier behavior change,” he said.

What does this mean for the average American gym-going man? Well, it largely depends on your situation. If you’ve been an avid fitness nut and gym-goer for some time, you probably have your routines and motivations locked in. It’s the interlopers — the guys who show up at the gym here and there, or those who only give fitness a real go for a month or so after New Year’s — who should takes studies like this to heart.

If that’s you, then establishing some clear goals and expectations for yourself can go a long way. As this study points out, if you’re going to the gym every so often just to make yourself feel better, likely because you haven’t come to terms with why you’re actually going, you’re not doing yourself much good. If you want to build muscle or lose weight, then actually make a plan to attack your goals. Just showing up at the gym here and there isn’t going to be enough.

It can be strange and scary to admit it, but you may be wrestling with some underlying body image issues. If you can step back and embrace that, it’ll pay off in the long run.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @Sliceofginger

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