November 10, 2015

How to Improve Body Image Without Improving Your Body

Lately, I have been crushing it in the gym! I will be the first to admit that I frequently half-ass my workouts… and then wonder why I’m spending so much time in the gym with no results. But between trying to use up all my soon-to-expire Orangetheory classes and signing up for ClassPass, I’ve been finding a lot of new-to-me boutique studios that are really challenging me. Sweat sweat sweat sweat sweat!

Regardless of how hard I’m working, I’m not yet sure whether I’ve actually gotten any fitter or lost any weight. It’s only been a few weeks of really going hard in the gym, which isn’t really long enough to show much change on the scale outside of normal water weight fluctuations. Plus, any calorie burn progress is offset by things like the challenge of traveling for work – eating all my meals in restaurants always leads to a little weight gain. And, of course, I can’t disregard the fact that I’m not going balls-to-the-wall dieting during the times I am in control: social nights with friends are a highlight of my week, as are date nights with Adam. This Lifehacker article hits the nail on the head: when you’re in a long-distance relationship, it’s hard not to feel like every time you see each other is a special occasion, and then indulge accordingly. I’m not giving either of those up!

If you thought I was going to go to Sonoma and limit my wine consumption just because I want to get in better shape… think again.

But despite the fact that I’m still enjoying what I eat, I do feel a lot better about my body since I’ve gotten into a workout groove. There aren’t any mountains to climb before work when I’m in Dallas, but it feels fantastic to head into the office at 7am knowing I’ve already conquered a tough workout! And while my clothes aren’t really fitting any differently, I feel like I see myself differently: more athletic and “toned” rather than blobby. I don’t care if there’s actual change or if anyone else can see it; the way I look in the mirror to myself is definitely at least half the battle.

Or sometimes, the way I THINK I look in the mirror.

As it turns out, it’s not just in my own crazy mind that this phenomenon is occurring. In fact, a 2009 study found that the mere act of exercising can improve your body image. This study was actually a conglomerate of 57 previous intervention studies, in which “the researchers found conclusively that exercise buffed up the way people see their bodies regardless of the actual benefits.” That’s right, even if exercise doesn’t actually improve your body, it can make you feel like it did! That sounds like a sure-fire win.

However, the really interesting part of this study is that “while the frequency of exercise mattered for boosting body perceptions, there were no differences for the duration, intensity, length or type of exercise.” So basically, it doesn’t matter if you’re working out hard – just that you are working out often. That part is a little strange to me – from a sample size of one, I know I feel better about myself after a tough workout than I do after just a mediocre one. Maybe that’s just personal pride? On the bright side, though, that finding indicates that if I’m too tired/busy to do a really tough workout, I can still reap the psychological benefits from just moving somehow. Sweet!

Tomorrow, though, I’m still planning to hit it hard with a “Tsunami” bootcamp (rowing, weights, and cardio). After all, I might be getting the psychological benefits of exercise from an easy workout, but I’ll only get the actual body improvements if I keep challenging myself. Easy exercise might help me feel better, but tough exercise is what’s going to make a difference.


6 thoughts on “How to Improve Body Image Without Improving Your Body”

  1. I wonder if this is why people feel so good about taking the steps every day (ahem…like you!). Truth be told, it doesn’t burn THAT many more calories (maybe…. 30?) per day, but it is one of those little things that makes people “feel” like they’re doing the right thing.

    1. “It doesn’t burn THAT many more calories” – depends on how sedentary you are normally. I can think of a few Saturdays/Sundays where the two of us have curled up on the couch all day and I’ve only taken 2,000 steps (rather than 10,000) 😉 Still, worth it!

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