The Surprising Ways Exercise Can Help You Embrace Your Body

Body Image and Exercise

Photo: Pond5

As a teenager, Beth Ann Curran struggled with anorexia so severe her weight once dropped to 76 pounds on her 5’6” frame. But repeated hospitalizations and years of therapy only helped to a point. What enabled Curran to make peace with her body: lifting weights. Her favorite workouts include hoisting kettlebells into challenging positions, such as windmills or Turkish get-ups, to work nearly every muscle.

“When I had my eating disorder, I felt completely disconnected from my body,” explains Curran, now 29, a personal trainer in Philadelphia and DailyBurn coach. “But when I’m lifting weights, I’m experiencing a mind-muscle connection. Your whole body is moving, and you’re just in that moment. There’s nowhere else you can be.” She now weighs a strong but lean 140 pounds.

The relationship between fitness and body image has long been a complicated one. Does exercise make you feel better about your body or prompt you to chase unrealistic goals of perfection? Are we more satisfied if we lose weight or become more toned?

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New research suggests that why we exercise and the type of activity we choose may have different influences on the way we see ourselves. A study in the journal Body Image found that women who exercised primarily to improve their appearance experienced less of a lift in body image than those who worked out for other reasons, such as an endorphin high or stress reduction.

“If a woman exercises primarily to lose weight, the psychological benefits tend to disappear,” explains author Kristin Homan, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “You’re thinking about how many calories you burned, instead of enjoying the invigorating feeling of a hard workout.”

Finding the Sweet Spot

It’s a delicate balancing act for therapists who counsel patients struggling with eating disorders: How to help them enjoy the benefits of fitness without triggering obsessive behavior. “Eating disorder patients tend to be too fixated on losing weight. So when we prescribe exercise, we have to be careful that we’re not encouraging overtraining, which is more than one hour a day. At that point, it can worsen your mood by stimulating your appetite and disrupting your sleep,” explains Julie Friedman, PhD, a psychologist who directs a weight management program at Insight Behavioral Health Centers, a chain of outpatient mental health treatment centers based in Chicago. “Exercise should be about pleasure.”

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So which approach to fitness is best when it comes to helping women feel better about their bodies? Although Curran experienced redemption through kettlebells, one study of 46 young women who had a history of weight and body image issues found that cardiovascular exercise trumped strength work. The research, which was recently published in the journal Body Image, found that although both activities improved subjects’ overall mood and body image, the women assigned to an eight-week program of aerobic exercise on a treadmill or elliptical machine had less anxiety about their physique and thought they looked better than those who focused on resistance training. The machine exercisers lost only a small amount of weight, but reported that they “felt thinner.” The strength group, on the other hand, saw a slight gain.

Kettelbell Swing Woman Body

Photo: Pond5

Unhelpful Self-Reflection

“You’re tempted to become preoccupied with what your body looks like, instead of what it can do.”

The findings conflict with a host of other studies suggesting that resistance exercisers experience more of a psychological boost after developing muscle tone and feeling stronger. The reason might have to do with the modern gym environment.

Researchers from the study in Body Image theorized that the cardio group benefitted from working out in an area where they weren’t surrounded by mirrors, unlike the strength trainers who were frequently faced with their own reflections. “In the weight room, there were more chances to see themselves and feel like they’re being evaluated by males,” explains study co-author Shawn Arent, PhD, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

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Other studies show that mirrors, although useful for observing and correcting one’s form, prompt women with eating disorders to focus selectively on the parts of their bodies they don’t like, rather than the bigger picture. “I tell my patients ‘There’s no reason to look at yourself in the mirror’,’’ says Friedman. “You’re tempted to become preoccupied with what your body looks like, instead of what it can do.”

She says she encourages her patients to try various forms of exercise — be it CrossFit or restorative yoga — and not embrace rigid “black and white” thinking about which is best. “I just want them to feel comfortable moving their bodies, even for just 20 minutes,” Friedman says.

Connecting with Your Body

So where does a practice like yoga fit into the conversation? Anecdotal evidence makes the case that all those flying crows and upward dogs make you appreciate your body like never before. It might also help that many instructors draw a curtain over the mirrors and bark at you to “keep your eyes on your mat.” A small number of studies found the practice was helpful in treating eating disorders, but one review concluded that more research is needed to back such claims.

Yet Irene King says that a regular practice of Bikram yoga helps her manage her bulimia, which she’s struggled with on and off since her late teens. After eating “forbidden” foods, such as cake, at a party, she’d come home and give herself permission to binge on boxed macaroni and cheese or cookies, since she figured she’d throw it up later.

But the destructive cycle came to an end about a decade ago, when she saw an ad to try yoga for $30 for 30 days. After completing the month, she felt inspired to take better care of herself and has since maintained a healthy weight. “The bulimic mindset is that purging is getting rid of the bad stuff in your body, but exercise does it for you. You feel your sweat coming out. You feel cleansed,” says King, 44, an artist from Jersey City, New Jersey. And the benefits extend beyond the studio, she says. “You treat you body better because you respect what it’s done for you.”

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As for Curran, she knew she was on the road to recovery when she could tolerate gaining muscle mass — a sharp contrast to her sickly state a few years earlier while following an extreme low-fat diet during training for the Philadelphia marathon.

“With cardiovascular exercise, you can’t measure how strong you are. But with weights, I can see how much more I can do each year. I become mentally strong,” Curran says. It’s an improvement from the way she felt emotionally shut down when she had stopped eating during the worst of her anorexia.

“I didn’t want to be invisible anymore,” she says. “I recognized that my body took up space. I was a presence in the room, and I mattered.”

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