Exercise and self-esteem: Motives matter

One of the things I often say when I talk about the benefits of exercise is that exercise, on its own, helps with body image and self-esteem. Student athletes, for example. have fewer struggles with body image issues even controlling for size and shape. That is, it’s not that you look better after working out and so feel better about your body. It’s that doing active things with your body makes you feel this way.

But it turns out that motives matter. Students athletes love sports. They’re competitive. They’re exercising for performance. They’re not trying to get thin, or lean. They’re not even exercising for fitness.

Middle aged women who work out also have better body images and self-esteem and even if they’re not competitive athletes, they might be working out because it feels good, or for social reasons, or for health reasons.
Active women are more likely than inactive women to be happy with their bodies, even at the same size. See Few Middle-Aged Women Are Happy With Their Body Size: The ones most likely to be are highly active. There are lots of reasons for being active and they all lead to improved body image and self-esteem. That is, except for one.

If you’re working out because you hate your body, because you’re unhappy with the way it looks, then exercise might make things worse.

See Study shows exercising for appearance’s sake a blow to body image:

“Deakin School of Psychology researcher Associate Professor Matthew Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, said while exercise was typically found to improve feelings of body satisfaction, the effect was reduced or even reversed for people who are seriously unhappy with their appearance.

His paper, recently published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, studied 178 women and found those who were dissatisfied with their bodies in general were more likely to exercise for appearance-related reasons, and went on to record the worst results for post-exercise wellbeing.

“While we know exercise has lots of benefits for mood and physical health, that it generally makes us feel better about ourselves, the benefits may be lessened for some groups of people,” Associate Professor Fuller-Tyszkiewicz said.

“What we found is that exercise can actually make people feel very self-conscious about their bodies, and some people can have worsening body image immediately after exercising. People who have really high body dissatisfaction are most at risk of this.”

We say this all the time on the blog, exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it. This is further proof that exercising because you hate your body is a really bad idea.

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4 thoughts on “Exercise and self-esteem: Motives matter

  1. I quoted you and Tracy on this in the book I’m working on now! It’s so simple and obvious and intuitive, yet so often forgotten.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! Working out to earn your food, repent, or to punish clearly reinforces the self-loathing associated with those motivations. I would also add, “eat brownies beacause you love yourself, and they are delicious, not because you earned them.” It makes them taste so much better! 😀

  3. Thanks for a great article Sam! this is so important to share! It’s impossible to get to a destination of loving yourself if the way you try to get there is by hating and punishing yourself. It just won’t work!

  4. I so agree that loving your body is a powerful motivator, high to keep on exercising. It just feels good, says the body. 🙂

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