Exercise and Body Image

Contributor: Leigh Bell, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

foot-16490_640The relationship between exercise and body image is tricky because some of the research is contradictory, but all studies do agree exercise is definitely a body-image booster.

In fact, people who exercise develop a better body image even with little to no change in their physical appearance1.

Exercise is just as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy to improve body image, and it has the benefit of physical health.

Body image, however, can both motivate and inhibit exercise, and this is where the research disagrees. Past studies have shown people who have a negative body image and/or people who are overweight don’t exercise because they feel self-conscious and don’t want others to see them huffing and puffing. They may also feel discouraged by the metaphorical hill they must climb to lose weight.

Does Exercise Play a Factor?

Yet, other research shows negative body image is perhaps the greatest motivator to exercise — people do it to look better2. In this study of more than 1,000 college students, body image had little to no role in why people didn’t exercise.

In fact, those who didn’t hit the gym felt pretty good about their bodies (75%). On the contrary, a meta-analysis of previous research found people who exercise have a more positive body image than people who don’t3.

When Exercise Is Not Enjoyable

ski-tour-257008_640Now, poor body image can affect where a person exercises. People who are overweight and/or feel badly about their appearance don’t tend to hit the gym or join crowded CrossFit classes. These people may feel more comfortable working out alone, at home, but they usually don’t enjoy it as much4.

Less enjoyment and no social support could convince someone to quit working out, which is a shame because exercise one thing that will make them feel better inside and out. And here’s the catch 22: People with the poorest body image get the greatest benefit from exercise.

How Exercise Enhances Body Image

Exercise does three things to achieve enhanced body image: It improves fitness, increases awareness of physical capabilities, and raises self-efficacy (Millslagle). Although improvement in body image can occur without obvious results from exercise, when people see changes in their body composition, they feel better about their body.

More awareness of physical capabilities may reduce one’s focus on physical appearance, and this is particularly important for women, who tend to place greater value on their appearance. When someone becomes stronger, can run a little longer or lift a little more weight, they feel accomplished and effective. This increase in self-efficacy heightens body image.

Renewing Your Mindset on Body Image

Young woman smiling in sunlight portraitPoor body image is endemic in Western society. Women are more dissatisfied with their bodies than men, but even males are increasingly unhappy with their appearance.

Exercise is certainly a healthy way to improve poor body image, but renewed mindset is also important. Here are some tips to boost body image (Greenleaf):

  • Engage in positive body talk.People frequently engage in negative body talk or “fat talk” – saying things like “I really need to lose some weight” and “I’m not wearing shorts until I tone up.” Replace those negative statements with positive ones like “I am strong” and “I care for and nurture my body.”
  • Write out positive body statements and strategically place them in your home — for example on your bathroom mirror or on your phone. That way, the notes will remind you to engage in positive body talk.
  • Focus on what your body can do. Be proactive … learn a new physical activity, go to the park with your family, train for a 5k, or get a pedometer and work your way up to walking 10,000 steps a day (the current recommendation for adults).
  • Appreciate what you are able to do with your body and enjoy being active.
  • Accept the idea that healthy and happy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What impact has healthy exercise had on your body image? Has you improved body image translated to improved relationships?

About the Author:

Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.


  1. Millslagle, D. (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2015, from www.d.umn.edu/~dmillsla/courses/Exercise Adherence/documents/Bodyimageexercise.pdf
  2. Brudzynski*, Laura R. and Ebben‡, William (2010) “Body Image as a Motivator and Barrier to Exercise Participation,” International Journal of Exercise Science, 3(1),14-24.
  3. Hausenblas, H. & Fallon, E. (2009). Effects of exercise interventions on body image: A meta-analysis. Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 780-793.
  4. Greenleaf, C. (n.d.) Body Image and Physical Activity. Retrieved June 10, 2015, from www.appliedsportpsych.org/resource-center/health-fitness-resources/body-image-and-physical-activity/

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 1st, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com