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Can Exercise Improve Body Image?

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Beautiful large woman exercising - isolated over a white background
Beautiful large woman exercising – isolated over a white background

We all come in different shapes and sizes. Just like our own fingerprint, no two bodies are exactly alike. And our bodies are always changing throughout our life, whether it be because of puberty, pregnancy, or aging. We can burn more calories and lift more weights to help change the composition of our body, but our body will inevitably change throughout our lives. I always tell my clients to love the body they have and to nourish it with physical activity and whole foods and not to worry about looking like the perfect model or celebrity. We are all unique and have different features. But unfortunately, I too have fallen victim to poor body image at times, wishing I could change this or change that. I often don’t like to admit to my own insecurities, but I have found sharing my feelings with others helps me grow as a person and ironically become more confident. The other day I realized that I am always more comfortable in my own skin after I complete some form of physical activity like a hike, dancing, yoga or biking. I started wondering, can exercise improve body image?

I began my quest looking for journal articles to support my theory. I found one article located in the journal of Psychology and Health (2009). There were 65 female participants in the study. One group performed physical activity between 65 and 85% of maximum heart rate for 1 hour. The other group read a newspaper for an hour which did not contain any images of slim models. Those that performed physical activity had an increased body image after the experiment than those who read the newspaper. This was the only study I could find that demonstrated that just one workout could make a difference in body image. I also came across a review involving 121 studies, published in Psychology and Health (2006), which found that exercise was associated with a more positive body image.

So what does this mean to you? This research is very promising that including physical activity in your day can help improve your body image. Poor body image has been linked with depression, obesity and eating disorders which may be averted with physical activity. Even if you are not currently physical active, you can start including a small walk everyday to start gaining the benefits. Remember everyone’s physical capacity is different, just how everyone’s body is different. Begin with what you are comfortable with and gradually work your way up. You don’t have to wait months to notice results from your workouts, you will be able to feel results right after your first session.
Hausenblas, HA., Fallon EA. Exercise and body image: a meta-analysis. Psychology and Health. 2006 Feb; 21 (1): 33-47.

Vocks, S., Hechler, T., Rohrig, S., Legenbauer, T. Effects of a physical exercise session on state body; the influence of pre-experimental body dissatisfaction and concerns about weight and shape. Psychology and Health. 2009 July; 24 (6): 713-728.

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