Sherry Perez bought her first workout tape at age 12.
Now, dozens of DVDs and two decades later, Perez sees problems with those once beloved tapes — primarily, the unattainable bodies they put on display.
“Not only do (fitness DVDs) have one perfect body wearing a crop top, they have usually eight of the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen in your life,” said Perez, a health and fitness expert with the YMCA of Greater Toronto. “When you look at that every day in your basement ... it becomes unmotivating.”
According to a new study from Oregon State University, her assessment may be right on the mark — it suggests exercise DVDs may be psychologically harmful for users.
The study, titled Critical Discourse Analysis of Motivational Content in Commercially Available Exercise DVDs: Body Capital on Display or Psychological Capital Being Developed?, was published in the latest issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal. The study found that these DVDs may perpetuate hyper-sexualized, unrealistic body images and that participants are bombarded with demotivating statements while they work out.
For analysis, researchers reviewed 10 popular exercise DVDs and transcribed the tapes. Independent coders then stripped out instructions and divided the remaining “motivational statements” into positive and negative categories. Positive statements included the likes of “You can do it,” and “Don’t feel bad if you don’t have it yet.” Negative statements included, “I want you to think you’re going to throw up right now, but you’re not because you have to finish my workout,” and “You should be dying right now.”
Researchers found one in seven motivational statements were negative.
“These are beginning exercisers. You just want to encourage them — not scare them off,” said Bradley Cardinal, the study’s lead author and a kinesiology professor at Oregon State University. “(Beginners then) get a sort of defeatist attitude.”
Cardinal also noted that pushing people beyond their limits could put them at risk for injury. Additionally, some instructors had no apparent fitness qualifications.
As for body image, the study found most often, female instructors wore a sports bra and tight workout pants. Male instructors wore tank tops, cut-off T-shirts or an open vest. Instructors often made comments about appearances and in one case, a male instructor is seen caressing and commenting on the body of a female model, said Cardinal.
“It’s pretty creepy,” he said, noting some comments equated to bullying. “Sometimes people use these videos at home because they’ve had these kind of experiences in a fitness centre. And now, in one way, you’re inviting that same problem into your house.”
The results are no surprise to Catherine Sabiston, an associate professor with the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto.
“If we don’t direct people toward learning how to enjoy the exercise … it means that ultimately, people aren’t going to continue with it,” Sabiston said. “The videos perpetuate the negative emotions of envy and guilt and shame (through) both the verbal and visual nature of the messaging.”
While this approach may be effective for some users, a better approach would be to encourage participants to compare themselves to themselves — not encouraging someone to look like a fitness model, she said.
Cardinal also noted that some of the DVDs used marketing plugs, telling participants to try a product or diet in the middle of a workout.
His take-away message? Fitness DVDs are part of an unregulated quarter billion dollar industry. Buyer beware.
The 10 exercise DVDs were selected based on Consumer Report rankings, commercial demand and usage patterns at libraries. The DVDs were released between 2011 and 2014 and marketed to fitness novices, but for research and ethical reasons, the institutional review board at Oregon State University does not allow disclosure of the DVDs used in the study, said Cardinal.
The study went through a double blind review process and three rounds of peer review to be included in the Sociology of Sport Journal.