There seems to be an almost magical relationship between exercise and a healthy (or at least improved) self-image. Research shows that one of the best predictors (not the only one, but one of the best) of whether someone will achieve their fitness goals is a key aspect of self-image called self-efficacy. Self efficacy is the degree to which you believe you're able to control what you do, and what happens to you).
The higher someone's self-efficacy, the better their chances of starting and sticking to an exercise programme. At the same time, one of the most well documented psychological effects of regular exercise is a marked improvement in self-efficacy. The longer we engage in regular exercise, the better we feel about ourselves. This means is the better our self-esteem, the more likely we are to exercise, and the more our self-esteem rises, so the more we want to exercise and so on. Although the conclusions are fairly clear, there doesn't seem to be much study of why the relationship exists. There are, however, a lot of theories.
Firstly, there are the biochemical results of exercise (see our article on Exercise and Stress for a more in-depth look at these). Have you noticed that a given situation can look totally different depending on how good you feel physically? From the flood of endorphins through your bloodstream to the flushing out of stress hormones, a good workout (or even just a good walk) makes your body feel wonderful. This, in its turn, tends to improve the way you view yourself just as it would improve the way you viewed any other situation.
Continuing on this line, I want you to try something. Hunch your shoulders, cross your arms across your chest, look down at the ground, scowl, and say 'I feel in control.' Not very convincing? That's because an estimated 80% of our communication is non-verbal, and this applies internally as well. Now try sitting up, putting your shoulders back, taking a couple of deep breaths, and repeating the experiment. Different? Now you're communicating a totally different non-verbal message. Then consider that exercise helps strengthen your muscles and improve your posture all of which communicates nonverbally to your mind how you're feeling.
Moving away from the physical, there are psychological reasons that reaching a specific exercise goal would increase self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is best improved by doing things. Every time you do something you haven't been able to do before, the part of you that holds your beliefs about what you're capable of (your self-efficacy) has to change to incorporate this new piece of information. So every time you achieve a new goal, your self-efficacy increases. This makes you more likely to set and achieve new goals, simply because, having tasted success, you know it's possible.
Then there's the way that other people react to the results of your exercise programme. You might get compliments on the physical effects perhaps you're losing weight, looking less tired, or suddenly have more energy. Or, what you're actually *doing* might draw positive comments. A friend might say 'You're so good you've kept this programme up for months now!' Someone might approach you at the gym and tell you they admire your dedication. (For extra 'self-esteem brownie points', look for opportunities to *give* these kinds of compliments sincerely to other people. You'll be amazed at how much better you feel about yourself). Getting compliments from other people isn't the best reason to take up exercise but if you surround yourself with supportive people, they *will* notice the difference and any compliments they give you are a nice side-effect!
Lastly, there's a reason I haven't seen anyone else mention, but it's such a big one for me that it needs to be mentioned. Exercising, by its nature, requires us to get rid of all our makeup, our tailored-to-hide-every-flaw suits, and everything else we hide behind to fit the magazine-imposed restrictions for beauty. And while letting that go can feel intimidating, it can also be incredibly freeing. Because exercising does the exactly same thing to everyone else.
If you want to once and for all destroy the illusion that everyone else but you looks like a model under their clothes, stand in a gym changing room and really *look* at the bodies there. There will be women who are 'too skinny', 'too short', 'too fat' too 'whatever' to fit magazine standards and most of them will be wandering around totally un-self-consciously, with far more important things to think about than the 'flaws' in their own, or each other's bodies. *This* is reality. *This* is what healthy women of all shapes and sizes look like. And when this realisation finally sinks in, it can be more freeing than any pat assurances that 'everyone's shape is different'.
THE BOTTOM LINE?
So what's the bottom line? Well, it's wonderful news both for those of us who have difficulty sticking to a workout programme, and for those of us who know our self-image could use a little TLC. Work on your self-image, even a little, and you're going to want to exercise more to take better care of yourself. Add that little bit more exercise into your weekly routine, and you're going to see your self-image improving. Work on them both just a little at the same time, and watch the magic truly happen!
By Tanja Gardner
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Biography: Optimum Life's Tanja Gardner is a Personal Trainer and Stress Management Coach whose articles on holistic health and relaxation have appeared in various media since 1999. Optimum Life is dedicated to providing fitness and stress management services to help clients all over the world achieve their optimum lives.
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