How Exercise Helps Treat Body Image Issues

“You can never be too rich or too thin” said Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” said Kate Moss, international supermodel. Such statements from iconic and famously slender women have become a kind of mantra for generations of women, who often develop low self-esteem and body image issues if their natural curves don’t fit within the super-slender silhouette so admired in Western culture. Many women, young and old, embark on starvation diets in an effort to lose weight and achieve the pencil-thin profile that continues to be fashionable.

Pin-Thin Is “In” … and Therein Lies the Problem

How does the glorification of the skinny girl impact regular women? According to a recent study led by exercise behavioral scientist Kathleen Martin Ginis, PhD, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), roughly 89% of North American women over the age of 45 feel unhappy with how their bodies look. Body dissatisfaction is a major risk factor for eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors. “Poor body image can have harmful implications for a woman’s psychological and physical health, including increased risk for low self-esteem, depression, and for eating disorders,” said Dr. Ginis in a recent video presentation for UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences. At the University of Missouri (MU), a study of American teenagers by body image expert Virginia Ramseyer Winter, PhD, found that negative body image also is associated with increased tobacco and alcohol use. In a recent MU news announcement about the study, Dr. Ramseyer Winter reported that adolescent girls who perceived their body size as too fat were more likely to smoke and drink. Interestingly, teenage girls aren’t the only ones impacted by negative body image. Study data also revealed that boys who felt they were too fat were more likely to binge drink.

The Impact of Media Images and Social Media Fashionistas on Body Image Issues

News images and social media don’t help young adults who are struggling with self-acceptance and body image. Super-fit and waif-like celebrities, by their example, help promote a slim physique as the societal norm. Remember the slender frames of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s and Twiggy in the 1960s? This trend continued with Farrah Fawcett in the 1970s, Meg Ryan and Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1980s and, in recent years, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Victoria Beckham, Kendall Jenner and countless high-fashion YouTubers. While there have been brief periods in our culture when a curvier physique has been admired (think of Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch and, more recently, Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian), the skinny girl ideal dominates. Pin-thin is definitely in, and is the body type that many women strive to emulate. However, there may be hope. It appears that exercise can turn things around for people who struggle with negative body image.

How Exercise Can Improve Body Image, Self-Perception

While many women (and men) in the United States are unhappy with their bodies, the research from Dr. Ginis and her team indicates that a single 30-minute exercise session can make women feel thinner, stronger and happier with their bodies. Among 60 young women who participated in the study, the participants who followed an exercise plan during the study felt thinner and happier with their bodies overall, as compared to the study participants who were less physically active. The findings indicate that people who engage in regular exercise experience more positive thoughts and feelings about their bodies, which may help replace negative thoughts about body image.

Treating Body Image Issues

Exercise is an integral part of treatment at Promises Malibu Vista, a residential mental health treatment center in Malibu, California, for women suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Psychiatrist Olga Yahontova, MD, and the care team help clients overcome negative body image issues and also treat any co-occurring eating disorders and related challenges through a combination of psychological and physical therapies. “Negative body image usually develops over years as a result of multiple childhood scars which remain invisible but deeply affect our sense of identity,” says Dr. Yahontova. “When someone is bullied or shamed as a kid, it shapes their body image and brings up feelings of anxiety, depression, self-doubt and isolation. Body image and the associated feelings are deeply rooted, but malleable — it is possible to change a negative body image at any stage of life.” Using individual counseling and group therapy paired with a program of regular healthy exercise, the staff helps clients learn to enjoy and accept their bodies through physical movement. Clients participate in sessions that teach them how to listen to their bodies and physical sensations as signs of stress or other emotional states, which they need to address and express in more constructive ways. Clients progress toward embracing their bodies, regardless of size. The aim of the program, explains Dr. Yahontova, is to help clients achieve self-forgiveness and acceptance, and through connecting more deeply to their physical selves, to develop trust, self-tolerance, healthy body awareness and a more positive body image. “The good news is we can mold who we are,” says Dr. Yahontova. “We can reinvent ourselves and there are different methods for doing this. Physical exercise is a powerful tool not only for alleviating depression and helping with trauma treatment, but also for reshaping our negative body image. This is especially true when we learn how to add positive filters to our identity and create a new positive self-image. Free of childhood scars, we can be happy and content.” Sources: How can exercise improve body image? By Ana Sandoiu. Medical News Today, June 2017. Acute effects of exercise on women with pre-existing body image concerns: A test of potential mediators. Lauren E. Salcia, Kathleen A. Martin Ginis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, July 2017.  Adolescent Tobacco and Alcohol Use: The Influence of Body Image. Virginia Ramseyer Winter, Andrea K. Kennedy, Elizabeth O’Neill. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, February 2017.  15 Celebrities Who Are Scary Skinny 2016 Edition. Katina Goulakos. The Richest, July 2016.  

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