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To celebrate and boost awareness of Body Acceptance Week (October 23-27), students in Dr. Kim McNally’s PE 207/PSY 214 Exercise and Mental Health course wrote blog posts to summarize a relevant research study on the relationship between exercise and positive body image. Here is a sample of their work.

Exercising For All the Wrong Reasons

by Edon Tamir & Alanna Peykar

Exercise has countless benefits, from boosting mental health to improving physical stamina. But when it comes to body image, the motivation behind our exercise routines plays a pivotal role. We are learning that individuals’ impetus behind working out is nearly as crucial to examine as their physical fitness. The study titled Appearance-based exercise motivation moderates the relationship between exercise frequency and positive body image (Homan & Tylka, 2014) hypothesized that high levels of appearance-based exercise motivation (working out primarily for the purpose of improving the way you look) weakens the relationship between exercise frequency and positive body image. The study involved 321 college women and aimed to understand how the frequency of exercise related to three specific aspects of positive body image: body appreciation, internal body orientation, and functional body satisfaction. In order to understand the key findings of this experiment, the audience must first comprehend the meaning of positive body image. Many people view positive body image as the absence of dissatisfaction of the body. On the contrary, it is actually appreciating our body for its functionality rather than just appearance. Having a positive body image means being satisfied with what our bodies can do. Moreover, while it's known that exercise can reduce body dissatisfaction, the study found that frequent exercise was associated with a higher positive body image. This can be a typical assumption considering an increase in exercise tends to have a result of “improving” one's physique. However, the relationship between exercise and body satisfaction is weakened when the motivation for exercise is primarily influenced by weight or appearance. The takeaway from these findings is that motivation matters when starting an exercise journey. When exercise is pursued for weight loss and other appearance-based reasons, it weakens the positive relationship between exercise frequency and positive body image. While exercise is known to have countless benefits, the underlying reasons for our fitness endeavors significantly influence our perception of body image. If we exercise solely to meet societal standards of beauty or to achieve a specific body shape, we might be missing out on the holistic benefits of physical activity. These standards are exacerbated by social media and fitness influencers. It is essential to also consider the negative feedback loop that many who exercise are caught in. Those who have high levels of appearance-based exercise motivation are more likely to develop body dysmorphia and continue down a cycle of negative body image. On the other hand, exercising for health, enjoyment, or the sheer love of movement can foster a more positive body image. It's important to remember that our bodies are unique. They allow us to experience the world, express ourselves, and achieve incredible feats. By focusing on what our bodies can do rather than just how they look, we can cultivate a more positive and appreciative relationship with them. So, the next time you lace up your sneakers or roll out your yoga mat, take a moment to appreciate your body for its strength, capabilities, and the joy of movement it offers. After all, it's not just about looking good; it's about feeling good too!  

Does Exercise Create a Positive Body Image For You?

by Kaitlyn Hanson & Katie Keller

Although exercise reduces women’s body dissatisfaction, very little research has explored how, or even whether, exercise is associated with positive body image. Research shows that positive body image is more complex than body satisfaction. A 2014 study by psychology professors Kristin Homan from Ohio State University and Tracy Tylka from Grove City College tried to answer this question. The study examined whether exercise frequency was positively related to three aspects of positive body image — body appreciation, internal body orientation, and functional body satisfaction — among 321 college women.

Let’s dive into how we define these three aspects of body image. What is body appreciation? Body appreciation refers to unconditional approval and respect for the body. This means that individuals with body appreciation, truly appreciate their bodies and recognize that their bodies are unique and they accept their flaws as well as their assets. Internal body orientation is a key part of positive body image. It is all about changing the focus. Instead of habitually monitoring one’s outward appearance, it’s crucial to pay attention to one’s internal body orientation. It is much simpler to look in the mirror everyday and visibly see results, however, it is equally and oftentimes more important to check in and see how your body feels internally. Is this workout good for me? Is it making me feel good? Is this food satisfying me? When we are more concerned about comfort rather than appearance, then that promotes positive body image. Finally, functional body satisfaction refers to approval of and satisfaction with the body’s physical capabilities.

The aforementioned study from Homan and Tylka found that exercise frequency (how often you exercise) had a positive relationship with positive body image. It also found that individuals who based their exercise motivation on factors related to their physical appearance (for example, weight and shape reasons) had a weaker relationship between exercise and positive body image. The findings of this study emphasize the importance of the way we frame not only our own exercise habits, but also highlight the need for a greater culture shift in the way we think about exercise. For many of us, exercise is seen as something that we “need” to do-- whether it be to maintain our current weight, to work off extra calories from a meal, or to change some aspect of our body that we are unhappy about, and this way of thinking about exercise is quite normalized in our society. Imagine if instead, we viewed exercise as something we participated in because we enjoyed the feeling of being physically active, or because of the long-term physical and mental health benefits regular exercise provides. This shift in the way we think about the impetus for exercise not only makes physical activity more enjoyable in the moment, but is also correlated with better body image and a self-view that is more positive and compassionate.

It can be hard to imagine actually shifting the way we think about exercise, food, and our own body image, especially since we have been thinking about these relationships in the same ways for so long. These changes don’t have to be made overnight, however, and small habits can end up making a big impact. For example, one small step could be unfollowing fitness influencers who only talk about exercise as a means to an aesthetic end (weight loss, for example, or getting a “snatched waist”), and instead, filling your social media feed with content that will contribute positively along your journey to redefine your relationship with exercise, food, and body image. Doing the day-to-day work to change our cognitions surrounding these topics has the potential to give us so much more self-acceptance and self-love in the long run.

Image Credit: Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash