Body image is how a person perceives their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that are experienced because of this. There are many individual and environmental factors that influence an individual’s body image.
Some of these factors are:
- Personality Traits
- Low Self-Esteem / Depression
- Appearance Bullying
- Family Environment
- External Events
There have been many studies to confirm the positive effect of physical activity on physical, mental and social health, however, there have not been many studies on the effect of resistance training on body image. Through personal experience, I am well aware that any healthy diet and exercise behaviours can be abused and conversely, there is also a line that can be crossed where an individual can think their lifestyle is ‘healthy’ when actually it is extremely harmful.
In the fitness industry, competitive bodybuilding, including figure, fitness model and bikini divisions is booming. This sport is based mostly on resistance training and diet. The purpose of this article is to discuss the positive effects of resistance training on body image. This does not mean to say that an individual that engages in resistance training may not have a negative body image though either.
Positive self-image and body image are very different but one may influence the other. Terms like ‘I am a failure or a bad person’ are examples of poor self-image but thoughts may be carried over to our physical body. For example, if someone puts on weight and thinks they are fat (body image) they may feel they are a failure.
The same may be said for binge eating or breaks from their exercise regime.
What Does The Research Say?
To determine positive effects of resistance training on body image, many factors should be considered, such as emotional and social health and well-being. A study by Seguin et al (2013) involved a 10 week, twice per week strength training program for midlife and older women living in rural areas, to determine changes in body image and other psychosocial variables. The results showed a positive impact on their perceptions of their physical body, their self-concept and improvement in anxiety levels about their bodies in social settings (1).
The women also reported feeling ‘fitter’, valued physical activity more, wanted to maintain exercise activity in their lives and felt their overall health had improved.
An interesting result was that there was a slight decrease in their pre-occupation with body weight.
These results are also reflected in other studies on the effects of strength training on body -image conducted with adolescents and young adults. Reel et al, conducted a meta-analysis on various exercise formats to conclude that body image concerns had more positive outcomes with weight training rather than aerobic activity (2). This study found that there was a change in attitude towards body weight and fitness, with learning and the social aspect being key components to enjoying exercise more.
What I Have Noticed Personally
My personal experience reflects these findings, although I began strength training initially out of fear of being hospitalised for anorexia nervosa. My GP at the time was going to admit me and this terrified me. After asking for one more chance, I took up training with weights and ceased all long distance running, which was my means of keeping the number on the scale down. I had no other motivation for running, no fitness goals, no races to prepare for and for many times, no enjoyment from it.
I ran out of compulsion to keep my regime and to feel some value from doing so. I could also run alone. It was not social!
Hospitalisation for me meant a loss of control. I wanted to get better but at the same time was terrified to do so. I thought at least by trying to put on weight using resistance training that I still had some sense of control.
Gaining a knowledge of how to lift, the muscles that were being trained with the various exercises and feeling the muscles used as I trained them, gave me a different perspective on what my body could do. I began to enjoy feeling my body move, rather than just running for the purpose of burning calories.
There was a definite shift in my attitude to why I exercised and I thought if I want to lift more I am going to have to eat more. Believe me, this was not easy to do but the change gradually came.
My goals became fitness orientated rather than weight preoccupation.
The intense fear of food and eating decreased, as did the intense fear of the number on the scale increasing. My social relationships improved, as I felt less anxious to eat with others.
My mood improved and I became more outgoing.
Some may say that I merely replaced one form of exercise for another. I did. It was the change in the way that I saw my body that helped the gradual change in the thoughts about what exercise did for me. Education concerning the negative affects of my behaviour on my body also helped in changing the thoughts and feelings I had around eating.
My body image improved!
My body weight increased as I felt I had some part to play in that. My only regret was not having psychological treatment at the time to work through the issues of why I began the negative diet and exercise behaviours to start with.
But Are There Any Dangers With Weight Training and Body Image?
For anyone who engages in strength training, whether for competition bodybuilding or not, there is a confidence that comes from gaining strength but also from the effect it has on changing your body shape. As with any form of physical activity, there is the danger that if your thought life is not right due to the many factors that can affect it, then there is the danger that negative body image issues can arise from participating in resistance training activities.
Muscle dysmorphia, disordered eating, bigorexia, and shape preoccupation are body image issues where unhealthy methods may be adopted.
These include strict dieting, dehydration and anabolic steroid use.
Social lives may be impacted and for those that compete in physique competitions, some may experience fear and anxiety to increase body fat and weight post competition. If a person’s sense of self-worth is based on having a ‘competition ready’ body then this may create body image issues.
I believe in order to keep our body image healthy, we need to look at the health of the rest of our lives.
These include, our relationship with ourselves, our social lives and the amount of time and effort we spend on other hopes and dreams, not just ones focused around food and exercise.
Most importantly, determine what is your real motivation for training and focus on that as opposed to focusing on body image.
Seguin, R.A., et al. (2013). Strength Training Improves Body Image and Physical Activity Behaviors Among Midlife and Older Rural Women. Journal of Extension, 51 (4): Web.
Reel J.J., et al. (2007). Relations of body concerns and exercise behavior: a meta-analysis. Psychological Reports, 3(1): pp 927–942. Web.