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How Exercise Affects Body Image

Blog 1 Body imageIt’s accepted that exercise is good for your health – and yet despite that common knowledge, it’s not necessarily enough to motivate your clients to exercise. As a weight loss professional, what can you do to help your clients muster this motivation? Better still, what can you do to help them stick with it for the long-term?

Psychological aspects of obesity and exercise
Although the physical health factors associated with obesity are widely discussed, the psychological impacts receive much less public attention. For example studies have confirmed that negative body image is a predictor of being overweight or obese. However, it is also known that people who originally started exercising to improve their appearance may choose to continue with that activity because of the benefits to their physical and mental well-being, rather than any other reason.

Curious about this, researchers in Canada sought to understand how body image and motivation to exercise might change for women who were overweight or obese, (and who were new to exercise) over the course of an 18-week fitness program.

Study design
The authors recruited 80 women of which 37 completed the entire program. Measurements at baseline included the use of two diagnostic tools to gauge the attitudes of participants towards themselves and towards exercise, as well as analysis of participants’ body composition and fitness levels.

The first of those diagnostic tools is the Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire. This tool is composed of a set of 69 questions used to understand how a person feels in relation to their physical body, measuring aspects of body appearance, health and physical functioning.

The second tool is the Behavioural Regulation in Exercise Questionnaire-2, which measures motivations to exercise by exploring reasons cited by the participant for exercising. Using the tool, motivations are grouped as:
• external (exercise for the purpose of meeting a separate outcome),
• introjected (exercise to enhance self-esteem or reduce self-imposed feelings of pressure),
• identified (exercise for the purpose of meeting a goal – it may not necessarily be inherently enjoyable),
• intrinsic regulation (where a person gains great pleasure from exercise), and
• amotivation (no intention to perform exercise).

Participants were provided with a ‘prescription’ for moderate to high intensity exercise developed by a trainer. Each person was asked to exercise for 30-45 minutes, 3 times a week working towards a particular target heart rate range. Over the course of the study, participants were asked to gradually work towards a higher heart rate range, and to slowly increase the amount of time spent in that target range.

Results
Significant improvements were noted in three key areas:
• Appearance Evaluation (describing feelings of physical attractiveness)
• Fitness Orientation (describing the extent to which a person values fitness and involve themselves in activities to maintain fitness)
• Body Areas Satisfaction (describing feeling more generally content with most areas of their body)

Interestingly, these improvements were noticeable from 6 weeks, and continued to increase until the 12 week of the study, which indicates that it is possible to achieve notable improvements in body image in a relatively short period of time. An additional finding was that participants did not need to feel physically fit, or “in shape” to experience improved satisfaction with their appearance during the exercise program.

These results highlight the importance of a progressive approach to exercise, as well as the positive psychological aspects of exercise for people who are overweight and obese.

Reference: Pearson, E. S., & Hall, C. R. (2013). Examining body image and its relationship to exercise motivation: An 18-week cardiovascular program for female initiates with overweight and obesity. Baltic Journal of Health & Physical Activity, 5(2), 121–131.

Do you measure your clients’ motivation or body image? Have you noticed changes in these measures as your clients’ progress in their journey? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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