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Exercise and Self-image

As a woman carrying excess weight, if you notice that you feel a bit differently about exercise than your slimmer peers, you’re not imagining the discrepancy. Or so says an article entitled “The influence of self-image on exercise” by Gretchen Reynolds (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 1/28/14, Health & Fitness, 18E).

The International Journal of Obesity published a study in which “scientists affiliated with the Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality at Southwest University in Chongqing, China” concluded that the brains of thinner and heavier women show different activity when asked questions about exercise. Lean and heavy female participants were shown images of people engaged happily in activity and told to imagine themselves doing the same and also shown images of people being sedentary. “The resulting readouts revealed that overweight women’s brains were put off by exercise.” They also showed that the part of the brain that deals with negative emotions lit up more in the scan. The leaner women had the opposite reactions.

Of course, this study does not prove cause and effect, only correlation. Referring to heavier study participants, the article goes on to say, “Their bodies were unfamiliar with how to be active, which might have contributed, the authors speculate, to negative emotional responses. They didn’t know how to exercise and anticipated not enjoying trying to learn.” I’m a bit skeptical about this conclusion across the board as it doesn’t ring true with what I hear from clients who had a history of avid exercise for decades. Many describe having loved to dance, run track, swim, ski, and play volleyball and tennis which says they had positive associations with activity earlier in their lives. It seems to me that antipathy toward exercise is more likely related to experiencing greater difficulty moving a heavy body around. Of course, there may be a sub-group of heavier women who have always carried excess weight and for whom activity is unfamiliar, but not all “overweight” women lack a history of activity or enjoyment of it.

From your experience with exercise, what’s your take on the study’s conclusion? If you view activity as negative, how could you start to turn around your thinking? You could begin by finding one activity which brings you (even mild) pleasure. You could think and speak positively about exercise rather than focus on what you don’t like about it. You could remind yourself that your feelings about it will grow more positive as you become more active and skilled. You could reframe your beliefs about exercise if they’re holding you back. Remember, how you think and how you act can change your brain.