"Working out and doing sport are definitely in fashion. Sales in the industry are growing, fitness trackers are everywhere, and everyone seems to be training for their next marathon. We are experiencing a shift in perception of the ideal male physique. Studies of the way men are portrayed on magazine covers, and analyses of action figures aimed at boys, show that these are based on a more pronounced V-shape of the upper body, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. We also note that our male students are focusing more on their physiques, with the pursuit of a well-toned body being viewed as a positive personality trait. People who keep themselves fit are regarded as role models – and this is equally true in the world of work. After all, the physical training involved in building up muscles may come with high levels of motivation and self-discipline. With characteristics that are also in demand at the workplace, in other words.
Men in good shape are considered more capable
To date, attractiveness research has focused mainly on the face. We are keen to find out how much the fitness craze is influencing the idea of the perfect physique – and what impact this is having in the world of work. In our experimental study of 115 psychology students at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, we therefore concentrated on the impact of the body. While the literature suggests that women tend to want to be as slim as possible rather than muscular, we found a gap in the research on men as far as career-related issues are concerned. We started off by showing black-and-white photos of two men wearing a white T-shirt and dark trousers. Their heads were not visible. One of the men was muscular, while the other was rather skinny and more weedy-looking. The participants in the study were shown one of the two pictures at random. They were asked to give their spontaneous impression of the man they saw, rating him for characteristics such as how conscientious, sociable, creative or anxious he appeared. The scores reveal that career-furthering traits such as self-discipline or enthusiasm tended to be attributed to the muscular man on the photo. A person who looks like they are in good physical shape is clearly associated – also in the literature – with having characteristics that are viewed positively in the world of work. Such traits include good health and competitiveness, but also mental agility.
Greater impact on managers
As we chose two extreme opposites in the photos we showed, our findings should be viewed with caution. However, they do tally with international studies that show similar effects. Furthermore, we assume there will be industry-specific effects: managers or business consultants in industry who are physically bigger and look fit may be associated with greater assertiveness and therefore better leadership potential. Generally speaking, physically active people are judged to be better, stronger and more socially integrated.
The dose makes the poison
We worked with students, whereas older respondents may have had a different view. On the other hand, these students are the workers of tomorrow, so the trend we observed is likely to become more pronounced. Many of them work out and show high levels of motivation. I therefore believe that there is also a risk of them overdoing it. Clinical psychology explores the negative consequences such as sport addiction and depression that can result from an unhealthy obsession with bodybuilding. This can happen for example when a person tries to offset a low self-esteem simply by building up their muscles. This can also lead to pressure at the workplace if colleagues spend more and more time working out and cycling in the mountains every weekend. And it can quickly become a vicious cycle, because hulking great bodybuilders who go to excessive lengths to develop their muscles are not viewed positively in the world of work."
Dr Dominic-Nicolas Gansen-Ammann
A psychologist, Dr Gansen-Ammann runs the psychology degree programme (BSc) at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. He studies the processes by which people in organisations are influenced and led. He also explores how personality traits and social skills allow professional and personal success (or lack thereof) to be predicted, and looks at questions of clinical psychology in the work context.www.hs-fresenius.de > Dr. phil. Dominic-Nicolas Gansen-Ammann (only in German)