Amongst the multitude of other positive benefits, fitness has really helped me with my body image and body confidence. This week has been #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek 2019, I wanted to expand on the relationship between exercise and body image, a little.
If you aren’t already aware, the month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Within that falls Mental Health Awareness Week, spearheaded by the Mental Health Foundation. The topic for this year is Body Image – how each of us thinks and feels about our own bodies.
Research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation discovered that 20% of adults who took part in the UK study had felt shame towards their body in the last year. Even more worrying, is that amongst teenagers, this rises to a third (31%) – that’s every one in three young people, aged just 13 to 19.
However, they way we think and feel about our bodies can start a ripple effect, and have a much wider impact on our mental and physical health and wellbeing, leading to over a third of adults who took part in the study to report feeling anxious or depressed in relation to their body image*.
Whilst the true reason behind these thoughts and feelings is personal to every individual, it is also perpetuated by the portrayal of body image and body imagery in society and mass media. Unpicking the multifaceted system of beliefs that make up ‘diet culture‘ need more than just a paragraph and, in order to do it justice, will have to wait for another blog post, another time.
For now, let’s just focus on how exercise can help.
Exercise, Goals and Body Image
Why do we exercise? I would argue that, on the whole, it is because we know that it will help improve our health, make day-to-day living a little easier and make us live longer (hopefully). So, we’re doing it for the positive benefits for our bodies, right?
Yet so many people exercise is used as a tool to change their body. I’ve been there – look back a few years and I realise how much time I spent going to the gym, or going for a run, but the focus was on what my body would look like next week, next month, next year and how these activities would help me reach my goal of being a leaner, more aesthetic, version of myself. I realise now that how I was thinking about my body was inherently flawed, and how because of this, how much effort I put into exercising to make it look different.
I think it was Tally Rye who used a quote recently that I think is relevant here:
My body is an instrument to be used, not just an ornament to be looked looked at.
The kicker for me – the wakeup call, so-to-speak – has been moving towards more strength-based training. Moving away from cardio and introducing more resistance training has had one huge benefit: I started to appreciate my body for what it could DO, not what it looked like.
I’m not saying that you need to immediately start lifting weights in the gym (although I am an advocate for that too, but again, that’s a whole other blog post). My point is that lifting weights is a skill. It’s a functional goal – not an aesthetic one.
Your ability to pull a weight off the floor, or throw it above your head**, or run a 5k in under 30 minutes, or do 10 burpees in a row – none of these goals are achieved as a result of how skinny your waist is or how peachy your glutes are.
Body Image is how we think and feel about our bodies. My body is no longer ornament, but an instrument – a power-house for achieving many different things, both in and out of the gym. Yes, my legs might be bigger than they were, but they’re also 10x stronger. My body isn’t as lean as it used to be, but it has more energy. It’s not a lot of things, and it definitely doesn’t look like the perfectly flexed and toned ones you see in magazines, or on instagram, but it is very capable and is helping me towards my goals and that is what’s important.
Re-framing your goals can help to take the focus away from the visual, to stop the comparison of your body against others, and help foster an appreciation of how capable you are, already. Exercise now helps me feel stronger in my mind, not just in my body. Strive for that “BRING ON THE DAY – I GOT THIS!” feeling!
Until next time,
The Mental Health Foundation is already an authoritative and influential voice on the topic of body image. If you need more tips, or advice you can visit their website.
*All statistics in this post have been taken from the Mental Health Foundation website
** Disclaimer: please don’t just try and “throw a weight above your head” next time you’re at the gym to prove or disprove my point – seek the advice of a PT if you’re looking to start playing with weights for the first time!