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Body Image and Exercise

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At first glance, it may seem like exercising and having a positive body image are at odds. After all, we often exercise in order to lose weight because we do not have a positive attitude about our bodies as they are. But, as a University of Florida study suggests, exercise can actually help us to love our bodies more – here’s how!

Find exercises that you enjoy

For many of us, it seems normal to push ourselves to complete punishing workouts that we don’t enjoy. But all this does is reinforce the false belief that we are somehow wrong or inferior for not having a “perfect” body, and we deserve the punishment which, we hope, will help us lose weight and become more lovable.

But the reality is, whether it’s jogging, yoga, biking, or hiking, finding a form of physical activity that we actually enjoy will help us feel more embodied. It will bring our awareness to our bodies in a positive way. We’ll start to view our bodies as sources of fun! And that, in turn, will help us to build a more positive body image.

Forced exercise amplifies body hate

On the other hand, making ourselves exercise – and choosing forms of exercise that we don’t enjoy – because we feel it’s what we must endure until we lose weight and “become worthy,” only reinforces negative feelings we have about our bodies. This mentality is behind many diets. When we cut calories or fat from our diets because we feel our “imperfect” bodies make us deserving of punishment, we are actually failing to create the kind of healthy, sustainable lifestyle that will help us lose weight and keep it off over the long term.

Ditch the guilt

How often have we seen medical and nutrition professionals on talk shows telling us we need at least “X” minutes of exercise each day? While it is true that physical exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, our culture often delivers that message in a way that makes it feel more like an obligation than a pleasure. And we begin to feel morally inferior if we don’t exercise regularly.

So we basically work out to avoid feelings of guilt. But actually, it could be argued that not working out at all is in some ways better for our overall well-being than working out just to avoid shame. As we explore in our online retreat Transform Your Relationship with Food, holding negative attitudes toward our bodies puts us into a stressed physiological state that actually signals our bodies to hold on to fat!

However, when we exercise because we genuinely enjoy it, we experience the double benefits of improved physical health and a more positive body image.

Exercise sets a standard

When we find forms of exercise that we truly enjoy and that help us feel embodied, it can help set the standard for how we relate to our bodies in other areas of our lives. For example, if your motivation for exercising is do something good for your body because you know you deserve it, you are probably more likely to eat a nourishing, whole foods diet than to count calories, limit fat intake, or conversely, overdo it with sugar and other poor-quality carbohydrates that you know won’t make you feel your best.

Exercise helps us feel worthy.

For many of us, when we don’t have a positive body image, we feel as if we’re not worthy of enjoying our bodies. We need to drop a few pounds, achieve bigger biceps or skinnier thighs, and then we will deserve to love our bodies. But pleasurable, nourishing movement makes us feel better about who we are, and puts us in touch with the strength and ability that we have right now. And this naturally leads to a healthier, more loving attitude towards our bodies.

Like so many things, exercise is what we make of it. If we approach it as something we have to do because we need to punish ourselves until we’ve achieved the “perfect” body, then it will only amplify our negative attitudes about our bodies. However, if we approach exercise as a gift we give ourselves because we enjoy it and we feel worthy of optimal health, it will not only strengthen our bodies, but it will also help us improve our body image.

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