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For the Overweight, is Proximity to In-Shape, Normal-Weight Exercisers a Deterrent or an Attractor? An Examination of Contextual Preferences



For the overweight, is the thought of exercising in close proximity to physically fit, normal-weight individuals a deterrent or an attractor? Efforts to address this question stand to inform future intervention-based research.


The purpose of the study was to examine whether overweight individuals possess a preference for exercising alongside similarly overweight (relative to in-shape, normalweight) persons.


Relying upon an experimental paradigm, American participants evaluated one of four exercise contexts and completed a measure of social physique anxiety.


Overweight participants high in social physique anxiety exhibited a preference for exercise contexts comprised of other overweight individuals whereas overweight participants low in physique anxiety exhibited a preference for contexts comprised of in-shape, normal-weight individuals. A relative preference for social contexts among normal-weight participants was not observed.


These findings suggest that the provision of group-based programs designed exclusively for the overweight may be appropriate for overweight individuals anxious about the evaluation of their physique. These results also suggest that such programs may conflict with the preferences of overweight persons with a low degree of social physique anxiety. Thus, for the overweight (but not the normal-weight), exercising in close proximity to in-shape, normal-weight individuals can be both a deterrent and an attractor.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    In this manuscript, the term “overweight” is used inclusively to refer to both overweight and obese weight statuses and persons.

  2. 2.

    To ensure that participants interpreted our vignettes in the manner intended, we conducted a pilot study in which 43 additional participants recruited using the same method (M age = 26.21 years, SD = 8.66; 40 % female, 51 % college/university educated, 77 % Caucasian) were randomly assigned to read about a structured context predominately populated by “overweight” or “in-shape” persons and then asked to select the body silhouette that they believed best represented the individuals referred to in this context. Nine silhouettes, gender-matched to participants and ranging in status from underweight to obese, were presented. After controlling for the demographic variables that served as covariates during our main analyses, those in the overweight member composition condition (n = 26), M = 7.08, SD = 0.63, identified a silhouette that was significantly heavier than did those in the in-shape member composition condition (n = 16), M = 3.50, SD = 0.82, F(1,34) = 250.00, p < 0.001, partial η2 = 0.88. Thus, even though we did not explicitly specify that “in shape” implied that others would be of normal weight, participants themselves drew this conclusion and perceived a clear distinction between descriptions of overweight and in-shape people.

  3. 3.

    The BMI of 17 participants was below 18.5. As such, they were classified as “underweight” and excluded from our main analyses.

  4. 4.

    In addition to our main analyses, we considered participants’ weight in relation to activity status and social physique anxiety. Comparing the responses of overweight and normal-weight participants by way of independent samples t tests, we noted that activity status did not vary as a function of weight status, p = 0.43. Overweight individuals, however, reported a higher degree of social physique anxiety, M = 3.36, SD = 1.00, than did normal-weight participants, M = 2.67, SD = 0.84, t(142) = 4.38, p < 0.001, d = 0.75.


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This research was facilitated by a fellowship awarded to William L. Dunlop and a research grant awarded to Toni Schmader, both from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to William L. Dunlop.



Structured Context Vignette

You have just signed-up for an exercise class at your local fitness facility. Upon arriving at this class, you place your water bottle at the side of the room and take your place alongside your new classmates. The class would not begin for a couple of minutes and you start to look around the room to pass the time. As you do this, you notice that most people in the class are about your age, and the majority of these individuals are [overweight/in really good shape]. In fact, after looking around the room, you are only able to identify one person in the class who appears to be [in-shape/overweight]. As you come to this realization, the instructor emerges and the class begins.

Unstructured Context Vignette

You have just arrived at your local fitness facility. You come across a treadmill that is free and you begin to use it. After jogging for a couple of minutes, you start to look around and observe the other people exercising around you. As you do this, you notice that most of people in this facility are about your age, and the majority of these individuals are [overweight/in really good shape]. In fact, after looking around the facility, you are only able to identify one person who appears to be [in-shape/overweight].

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Dunlop, W.L., Schmader, T. For the Overweight, is Proximity to In-Shape, Normal-Weight Exercisers a Deterrent or an Attractor? An Examination of Contextual Preferences. Int.J. Behav. Med. 21, 139–143 (2014).

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  • Contextual preferences
  • Weight status
  • Social physique anxiety
  • Relational demography
  • Social identity