Body Image and Exercise. Why Reality Matters

Body Image and Exercise. Why Reality Matters

The media bombards us all with images of the perfect body. Sadly, many of these images are unrealistic or simply faked. This can have a terrible distorting effect on how people perceive themselves and their bodies. What can be done to keep us happy about our bodies, and persuade us to look after them?

Body image used to refer to the ‘mental map’ that we have in our brains of where our limbs are and how we take up space. This map controls our judgement of distance and helps to smooth our movements.  When our bodies change, it can take our brains a while to catch up – this is commonly seen with teenagers who go through a clumsy stage when they have a growth spurt.

For most of us, body image has come to mean more than this. It refers to our perception of ourselves and how we look, which relates to how we feel overall. Especially in the UK, we have a culture that it is not acceptable to be boastful or of thinking ourselves too wonderful. Nobody likes the person who is always bragging about how good they look and how marvellous they are. However, this can be taken too far in the opposite direction, which can cause the problem known as low self-esteem. This is particularly common in teenagers and those in their twenties, who are very susceptible to the barrage of media images of the so-called beautiful people. Lacking the experience to know that these images are often faked, or show someone who is very unhealthy, it is quite possible for young people to believe that they should resemble these unrealistic standards.

The extreme form of low self-esteem is called ‘body dysmorphic disorder’. This is when a person is utterly convinced that there is a serious problem with their appearance. BDD can stop someone socialising or functioning properly in society, and is a real mental illness that needs specialised treatment.

A false body image can be quite destructive when it comes to health and fitness. Bamboozled by the endless media images of super-fit gym goers in tiny leotards, we try on our tracksuit and t-shirt and decide that we cannot possibly be seen in the exercise class looking like that. Hence we don’t take exercise, lose our fitness, and perhaps comfort-eat. It is easy to see where this vicious circle will lead.

Another mental barrier to exercise is the idea that ‘exercise means we get muscly’. Again largely due to the media, all too many people believe that exercising will give them muscles like a body-builder. As any body-builder will tell you, large muscles take a huge amount of commitment and weight-training, and are not going to happen accidentally!  Normal exercise usually gives toned muscles without bulk, and a leaner look to limbs and torso.

So what can be done to stop the body image myths and help people to have the right level of self-esteem? Role models such as parents and fitness professionals have a huge part to play. For example, the staff at a good gym must ensure that they give a warm welcome and encouragement to all current and potential customers. No-one should feel barred from an exercise class because they are overweight – in fact they should be praised and encouraged because they are doing something to improve their health.  Gyms can also do more by employing staff who do not necessarily fit the usual skinny twenty-something stereotype. A class led by an instructor who is of similar age to the participants is hugely motivating because it shows what is achievable.

At home, parents need to keep a close eye on the messages that their children are receiving. For instance, parents who talk constantly about diets are sending very harmful signals to their children. Far better to feed the family healthy food in reasonable portions, not get obsessive about ‘treats’ and lead an active lifestyle involving fresh air and exercise rather than endless screen time.

The main messages for a healthy body image are:

  • Remember that most of the images of models, actors and celebrities are either faked or the result of a great deal of makeup, expensive clothing and clever lighting. Most celebrities and supermodels will admit that they do not wake up looking like the media image of themselves – it is simply not real!
  • Celebrate our differences; whether short and small, long and lean, curvy and statuesque, healthy bodies are all beautiful. We are not designed all to look the same.
  • Be realistic – a healthy weight for a height covers a range, it is not a fixed number. For example, someone who stands five feet and seven inches tall can be at a healthy weight of anywhere between 9.5 stone and 11.5 stone.
  • Remember that exercise does not mean huge muscles.
  • Appreciate a healthy body. We all tend to take health for granted until it is no longer there.

We all need to learn to be comfortable in our own skin. Making the most of ourselves and accepting what we have is essential for a happy life.


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