We have a thing here that we do from time to time, and that’s “you ask, fit feminists answer.” It goes like this — you ask, we answer (as best we can).
This question came from a reader a couple of days ago:
Hello! I’m wondering if you know of any review articles that try to get at the question: does “getting fit” actually make you emotional healthier or raise actual self-esteem?
This a great question. I take it the reader is trying to find some research that draws an actual link between fitness and emotional health and self-esteem. I’m about to pull a move that philosophers like to pull (being a philosopher, I do these things), and that’s to answer a slightly but ever-so-slightly different question. Researchers have definitely established a link between confidence and various forms of exercise.
For example, Professor Rebecca Sanguin, from Cornell, has published an article about the connection between strength training and improved body image. See “Strength Training Improves Body Image and Physical Activity Behaviors Among Midlife and Older Rural Women.”
Sam and I also talked a bit about this issue in our book, Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey. In the chapter on fitness and aging, we cited a study that showed that the best way to age well is to care less about your looks. The article cited is Amy Noser and Virgel Zeigler-Hill, “Investing in the Ideal: Does Objectified Body Consciousness Mediate the Association between Appearance Contingent Self-Worth and Appearance Self-Esteem in Women.” They focused on the way media contributes to women’s declining sense of self-worth as we age. So that’s not exactly the same issue. But as we have oft said on the blog, caring less about aesthetic goals and more about athletic goals in our fitness routines can mitigate our investment in a youthful normative appearance ideal we will fall short of, necessarily, as we age. So there’s that.
More directly on point is the claim, reported in Runner’s World and elsewhere, that “Few Middle-Aged Women are Happy with Their Body Size: The Ones Most Likely to Be are Highly Active.” The reports cited a study from the Journal of Women & Aging that found only 12% of women happy with their bodies. The difference: exercise.
We also have good evidence of a confidence gap between men and women. See Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article, “The Confidence Gap,” in The Atlantic. On its own it doesn’t answer the question asked by our reader. But Kay and Shipman connect loss of confidence in girls with a time of life where the girls are most likely to stop participating in sports: adolescence. And yet, they report, research shows that “girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. There’s even a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a bigger salary as an adult.” They put it like this: “What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quite competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.”
Participating in activities for fitness and sport tracks confidence, which is itself a major marker of self-esteem. The more we do to promote body positivity, the better we feel about our bodies and ourselves. As noted in the articles cited above, physical activity can create confidence and a strong sense of body satisfaction.
So it looks as if, yes, engaging in fitness activities raises self-esteem and these articles help to show that. I hope this is a good start at answering this inquiry. Thanks for a great question.
If anyone else has suggestions for articles that link self-esteem with fitness activity/exercise/sport, please share them in the comments.