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Body Image and Workouts

Research says that the exercise women select may contribute to attitudes about their bodies. Although I encourage you to do whatever exercises you enjoy, it’s interesting to consider which of those might—and might not—help improve your body image.

Studies at Australia’s Flinders University surveyed women who attend health clubs. Their findings might surprise you: “Taking cardio classes was linked with mood uplift, but greater time [italics mine] spent on individual cardio workouts predicted body image concerns. Women who spent more time lifting weights and taking yoga or other mind/body-oriented classes were less likely to perceive the body as an object to be modified for the judgment of others.” Researchers concluded that activities which focus on body awareness, mental health, centering, and calmness are more likely to help women connect to the reason they exercise (for fitness and to feel good) and, therefore, work to improve their body image.

Of course, women (and men) spend time on cardio machines for many (healthy and unhealthy) reasons—fitness, sports training, to burn off that chocolate sundae they ate the night before, struggling to be or stay thin, or to rev up endorphins and brighten their mood. The point is that excessive individual cardio exercise appears to correlate to body dissatisfaction perhaps, because it is goal, not in-the-moment, oriented.

Hopefully, mind-body activities don’t help people just focus on the reasons they exercise, but forge connections with their bodies as well. It’s easy to go through a cardio workout thinking of your body as a machine, an extension of the stair-stepper, stationary bike, or treadmill. These exercises are intense and, therefore, can disconnect you from body sensations (perhaps because of the opiate-like nature of endorphins). On the other hand, slow, precise, more finely tuned activities such as yoga or Pilates in which you intently focus on every move you make, force you to pay attention to how your body feels and works and enhance the link between mind and body.

Think about why you exercise and choose particular activities, and make sure that they contribute to eliminating negative self-judgment and increasing, not decreasing, the connection with your body. Vary your routine so that you include activities which make you feel good about your body from the inside out. The more you feel connected to your body in general, the more in tune you will be with your appetite. And, remember, just as you want to eat for the right reasons, you want to exercise for the right ones as well.