My Own File Drawer - Gym Sweat

The "file drawer effect" is a well-known issue within the social (and I'm sure other) sciences where null or minor effects aren't published. In my own case, I've completed a number of fairly small projects in classes or pre-tests that I didn't pursue further. I'd like to start a semi-regular series here where I talk about some of those projects. Many of these were personally formative in my experience but may not be all that interesting in and of themselves.

The first project I'd like to write about was completed as part of Sara Kiesler's Qualitative Methods class at CMU when I was a PhD student there. We were tasked with doing some sort of comparative analysis focusing on the situation and how it influenced the groups and individuals that were part of that situation. I had recently begun to get back into the habit of exercising so I had been going to the on-campus gym at CMU. As part of that effort, a friend of mine's boyfriend taught me how to lift weights. Though I had been around weights before, we spend about 4 hours with him showing me the primary exercises that each machine was for. At the time, CMU had 2 primary gyms. The University Center (UC) gym and Skibo gym. Though both had aerobic and weight lifting equipment, the UC gym had more aerobic equipment by far and the Skibo gym had more weights and variety of weights by far.

As an undergrad at CMU, I knew about the Skibo gym but also knew that it was mostly for/used by the student athletes on campus. I rarely walked near that gym (whereas I was in the UC all the them) so when I thought about the 'gym' I always thought about the UC gym as opposed to Skibo. But, the weights lesson was taught at Skibo, due to the presence of the weights I wanted to learn about there, and I started going to that gym in addition to the UC. The experience of attending both of these gyms highlighted a few interesting comparisons that I then decided to investigate. I will now quote (lightly edited) from the report I submitted as part of that class:

"The social values and norms of a location can be intriguingly strong, reinforced by both the design of a facility as well its users. I compared two different gym facilities at Carnegie Mellon, the Skibo gym and the University Center (UC) gym. These facilities, though only a few hundred yards from one another are very different in both their design and how they are used. Skibo, frequented mostly by men, has the most comprehensive weight training facilities on campus while the UC has dozens of cardio machines and newer weight lifting machines (though a smaller number of them). These two locations have surprisingly developed their own unique “atmospheres” and sets of social norms that dictate how people use these facilities. The extent of these atmospheres or norms even drives some people to the other facilities if it begins to bother them.

When I entered Skibo gym the facility I walked past two men who were toward the end of their work out, one struggling to do the last few push-ups of the day while he was being encouraged by his friend. The expansive, low ceilinged room was filled with machines and men. Weight training machines line most of the walls, almost all facing toward the center of the room where a huge assortment of barbells sit on a low rack along the central corridor of the room. The men are mostly silent, focused on their machines until they finish their “reps” and proceed to walk around slowly, examining themselves in the mirrors and watching the other trainers as they work. This pattern of lifting and then resting was described by an informant as necessary to get a proper workout, but the wandering glares were described by a female informant as uncomfortable, so much so that she no longer goes to Skibo gym. When asked about this incident, a male informant was surprised saying, “Girls may think we’re looking at them but we’re looking at everyone else too.”

This pattern of social staring was nonexistent at the University Center gym. There were several design and social factors that help explain this. The UC gym appears much more cluttered than the Skibo gym. Large, bulky machines sit in the middle of the room preventing you from looking across the expanse as you can at Skibo. The rooms most notable feature are the 11 cardio machines facing out of the second story window. These machines as well as many of the weight machines face away from the room, face walls, or are very close to other machines. Just standing in the room it doesn’t feel that all eyes are on you as it sometimes does at Skibo. In fact, I saw very little eye contact made between individuals that were not working out together in the UC gym. Many individuals kept to themselves watching television on their treadmills or on their iPads. Skibo seems to foster more of other kinds of social interactions as well. Individuals would ask to make sure that others were done with machines before they began using them where I saw none of this in the University Center. The nature of exercises at Skibo sometimes requires people to have spotters or other people to help do an exercise. In Skibo, it is not uncommon to see people spot each other or trade off use of a machine if it is busy in the room. In the UC, individuals wait in line for others to finish, generally unspeaking. That isn’t to say that there are no social interactions at the UC. I saw similar numbers of groups working out together at both locations.

Though these differences are stark, my interviews explained a lot of the reasons for some of these differences. Individuals that used Skibo gym generally indicated that they used those facilities due to the seriousness of their workouts. Informant 1, though at Skibo for the first time, said that he had come because the weights in the UC were not large enough to accommodate his workout. Informant 8 echoed these thoughts indicating that though the weights in the UC are useful for some exercises, he prefers the weights in Skibo. The overall opinion of those that preferred and used Skibo more was that its facilities were far superior to the UC but they based this solely on the weights and equipment, though several mentioned that the UC had better hours. Informant 6 mentioned that he preferred some of the other non-exercise facilities in the UC such as the sauna. Informant 5 indicated that the UC was a better fit because there were more machines and Informant 4 said that she wasn’t ready for the kind of equipment in Skibo. I feel that a large reason for this distinction between valuing facilities stems from the more experienced and more serious individuals who tend to frequent Skibo. If individuals are not serious exercisers, they may just use the UC because it is more user friendly or visible.

In general, Skibo is mostly male and fosters a certain atmosphere of men that want to compete against one another and are serious about getting fit. There are fewer people that use the gym and many of my informants kept regular schedules such that they recognized and knew many of the other people that use Skibo gym. The equipment at the UC gym does not support the kind of intense weight training that these individuals want so they generally avoid using it. On the other hand, the UC gym has video instructions on using the machines and offers smaller dumbbells. These kinds of elements attract those that may not be as serious about working out as those at Skibo or who may be a little intimidated by exercise equipment or other trainers. The combination of many of these elements partially leads to some of the differences I observed at these two gym facilities. The UC, due to the more individual nature of cardio exercise, the population that frequents this location, and the design of the facility does not encourage the same kinds of social interactions I saw at Skibo."

One last difference I didn't include in my original report was the prevalence of equipment cleaning materials and signage in the two locations. Whereas the UC gym heavily emphasized the importance of wiping down machines and equipment with eye-level signs, very few of these signs were present in the Skibo gym. The UC gym also had 3 locations to get wipes wheras the Skibo gym only had 1 location with paper towels and a spray bottle neither of which were always refilled on my visits. When I inquired to my informants about why the were was less emphasis on cleaning equipment at Skibo, I was told by that lifting weights leads to much less sweating than aerobics. Thus, if wiping down equipment is mostly to remove sweat, then it seems unnecessary if there is no sweating. Also, some Skibo gym regulars wore lifting gloves. This difference was interesting but didn't quite fit within the larger narrative so I left it out for simplicity.