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The relationship between body image and exercise

Someone posted a comment on another thread this morning that basically said, "I've lost 13 pounds, but now I feel fatter and more self-conscious." I'm starting this thread to reply to that post and to expand on the topic of body image.

I am a professional researcher, and although the psychology of weight loss is not my area of academic expertise, I co-authored a meta-analysis study (soon to be published) that examined something like 200 research studies about the relationship between body image and exercise. What we found is that there's strong and powerful evidence indicating that people who engage in at least some form of evidence tend to have a more positive body image than those who do not.

This doesn't mean that skinny gym junkies always feel better about themselves than obese couch potatoes. What it means is that activity level alone is an important factor in how we view our bodies.

My own real experience with this has less to do with the research than with my own real life experience.

I continue to struggle with a lifelong problem with my weight. I am currently making good progress with a healthy diet and moderate exercise.

I have noticed over and over in my lifetime that, during periods of low physical activity (due to work demands, weather, illness, motivation, or whatever), I tend to feel fat and ugly. During periods of daily exercise - even if it's rather light - my body image tends to improve dramatically. Even if my weight does not change, I feel lighter, more attractive, healthier, and more agile.

One of the first signs that an exercise program is working for me is when I feel a bit of a "spring in my step" when I'm simply walking to the office from the car. Instead of that depressing feeling of dragging my tired body around, I begin to sense the movements of the bones and muscles, I notice that I'm less out of breath, and I notice that I hold my head a little higher.

These small signs translate into an attitude of "I think I can ...I think I can ..."

They also begin to translate into a vastly improved sense of how I look. That might encourage me to fix my hair a little differently, pull out a pair of my "less fat" jeans and see if I can squeeze into them yet, or some other affirmation of my physical self.

All this is a very long-winded way of saying this ...

Listen to the words of this geeky old researcher who's actually lived with these issues and SHAKE A LEG. Do whatever physical activity your body will do. Do it MODERATELY every day every day every day.

You won't feel worse, and I can practically guarantee you'll feel better.

Gotta run -- this makes me want to go for a walk!


Mon. Jul 16, 3:03pm

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thank you for posting this positive info - I completely agree! I give some credit to endorphins on top of the psychology, too...

Monday, July 16, 2007, 3:11 PM

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Very thoughtful and true I think. I feel SO much better when I am physically active. Thanks OP!

Monday, July 16, 2007, 3:11 PM

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This is a GREAT point. Thanks for posting!
I think exercise is something I can feel all day... That little bit of post-workout soreness reminds me that I'm doing something positive for myself, so I can better visualize the process and potential of my efforts, rather than being depressed about being stuck.

Monday, July 16, 2007, 6:27 PM

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OP from other thread here

I definitely agree with you. I do not exercise hardly at all. Occasionally I will do a 30 minute workout tape when the mood strikes me. I am extremely busy. I work about 50 hours a week. I already hate exercise so much as it is, when I am tired from working the last thing I do is want to get all uncomfortable, sweaty and out of breath! I'm one of those people that who will only run if they are being chased.

Having said all that, before you begin preaching, I do understand that exercise is imperative not only for my weight loss goals but for my own self esteem. I know that if I start working out I will feel stronger, healthier and proud of myself. I have committed to doing some light weight lifting beginning next week to develop a stronger body.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007, 5:27 PM

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OP from other thread here

I definitely agree with you. I do not exercise hardly at all. Occasionally I will do a 30 minute workout tape when the mood strikes me. I am extremely busy. I work about 50 hours a week. I already hate exercise so much as it is, when I am tired from working the last thing I do is want to get all uncomfortable, sweaty and out of breath! I'm one of those people that who will only run if they are being chased.

Having said all that, before you begin preaching, I do understand that exercise is imperative not only for my weight loss goals but for my own self esteem. I know that if I start working out I will feel stronger, healthier and proud of myself. I have committed to doing some light weight lifting beginning next week to develop a stronger body.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007, 5:27 PM

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to other OP from this OP

I should have made my self clearer on one point ...

I hate exercise. With a passion. I won't even run if I'm being chased -- I'm a crack shot, so I could just shoot 'em and never get up from my chair! Just kidding, but you get my point.

I hate exercise, but I enjoy keeping busy. I find ways to do the things I enjoy, but I refuse to put the "exercise" label on them, thereby ruining the fun.

I don't want to "go for a walk" for exercise, but I walk miles and miles in the desert where I live. I do it to see the plants and wildlife. To do some photography. To hike up a mountain with my dog. I won't lift weights, but I'll do volunteer work helping to load or unload trucks filled with donated computers for needy kids. I'll do hours of strenuous lawn or pool maintenance.

That's what works for me.

I can sympathize with your rough schedule. For several years, I worked 60+ hours a week, and that was while I was doing a PhD and raising a large family. Things have calmed somewhat since then, but I understand the challenge you face.

In recent years, research has begun to show that it's ok if we don't do a 30-45 minute block of strenuous exercise. Those 5 to 10 minutes here and there throughout the day count.

Here's something I really really encourage you to try, if you think it might benefit you:

Make a one-week commitment to spend AT LEAST 10 minutes a day moving your body around in a way you won't find unpleasant. Promise yourself you'll do that for seven straight days. I don't care if you walk, run, dance, dig a ditch, paint a wall, throw rocks, skip rope, sail a boat, or chase butterflies. Just do something that involves moving around a little more than you have been.

I'll do it if you will ...



Tuesday, July 17, 2007, 5:45 PM

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two sides to every story and life and science are not black/white

I have experienced both spectrums of the effects of exercise on body image. Even at my lowest weight of 115, I still wanted to lose "just a few more pounds". I didn't feel fatter, but the more I exercised the more self-conscious I became. The more I exercised, the more I was focused on watching my diet. Eventually, it all snow-balled into bulimia. It can be easy for young women in the US environment (waif celebrities, cheap food at every corner, warnings of obesity epidemic) and who are in college (ideals of becoming successful, getting married, etc.) to become obsessed with the endless struggle of becoming infinitely skinny, whether to shift your mind off the things that stress you and you feel that you can't control or to achieve "success". It's all about balance, and we should be empathetic. If she says she feels fatter and more self-conscious, she probably does, but hopefully will stick with a balanced and healthy plan and reach a point where she feels fit and attractive. For every thousandth study that claims that exercise has a positive effect on body image, there are of course going to be the few who feel discouraged or unattractive while exercising.

Bottom line(s): Be empathetic and objective. (and) You might feel worse, but more than likely, you'll feel better.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007, 5:39 PM

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