Exercise Changes Body-Image before Physical Body Parameters

Exercise changes your perception of your body before it actually changes your physical parameters of your body. This raises the question: why do people drop out of exercise programs?

Apparently, exercise causes the participant to view their body better before any actual change in body shape or weight. Thats the finding of a study published in the January 2013 issue of Journal of Health Psychology (6 x 40 mins exercise improves body image, even through body weight and shape do not change, 2013. Appleton KM).

Sixteen males and eighteen females exercised moderately for six by 40 minute sessions over the course of two weeks. Body shape and weight were measured before and after the two week exercise program. There was no statistical change in body shape or bodyweight over the course of the two week exercise program. The Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire (MBSRQ) was administered before and after the two week exercise period. The 69-question questionnaire evaluates one's satisfaction and relative importance to his or her fitness, appearance, health and bodyweight. As a control, all participants took the MBSRQ prior to and following six by 40 minute sessions of reading over the course of two weeks. The control was administered several weeks before the participants' exercise program. As expected, no change in any of the measured physical or psychological parameters was measured in the reading control program.

Several interesting results came out of the aforementioned study. Body shape, through measurement of body dimensions, and bodyweight did not change in the participants over the course of the two week training program. However, participants were more satisfied with their body's appearance and health following the two weeks of exercise. The importance subjects placed on appearance and health increased over the two weeks of exercise, suggesting exercise triggers a positive feedback loop. Exercising increases ones awareness of health and well being prompting more exercise. Interestingly, evaluation of body weight did not change. Perhaps this is because body weight is more objectively measured; participants could easily determine bodyweight was not changing.

There was no significant difference between male and female participants.  Exercise has a similar effect on body image for both genders. Studies have found that exercise increases self-esteem and self-confidence (The effects of exercise on self-perception and self-esteem, 200. Fox KR). Whether the boost in body image is responsible for increasing self-esteem or a rise in self-esteem increases body image is not known.

Despite the findings of this study, many people who start an exercise program quit in the first several weeks before the exercise benefits kick in. Usually exercise drop out rate is attributed to participants not seeing any noticeable benefits to their body weight or body shape. It is possible that this bump in body image disappears after several weeks if physical body parameters continue to not change.

To keep patients exercising for the long-term it may be beneficial to explain the biological benefits of exercise. These are changes that, as discussed throughout ExerciseMed, occur immediately. Just because the outside of your body is not changing does not mean the inside is not. A similar strategy has been employed by anti-tobacco ads. Of course, in exercise's case, the effect is that the inside of your body becomes more beautiful.

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