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Can Regular Exercise Lead To Improved Body Image?

Regular exercise often leads to an improved body image, and we’ll talk about why. However, there are many other ways to practice overcoming negative body image.

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The topic of body image is something I usually save for my 1-1 client sessions because it’s vulnerable, it’s timely to unpack and it can be difficult to discuss. 

Body image is a multifactorial construct, referring to the manner in which an individual thinks, evaluates, and perceives his/her own body.

Body image is not the truth, but again, how a person perceives one’s body.

Legs and shoes hanging down off brick wall

Poor body image has been linked to poor self-esteem, internalizing symptoms, and disordered eating, highlighting the importance of understanding what leads to poor body image satisfaction

Many people struggle with body image, mostly due to the toxic diet culture we live in.

Body image and eating disorders, or disordered eating, are very much intertwined, and while the intuitive eating principles can certainly help, sometimes more guidance is needed.

The extent of body dysmorphia may vary per person and be dependent on so many factors.

Pregnant woman with belly sticking out on walking trail

For one, I think it’s very important to mention my thin privilege. I live in a thin body and I also have racial privilege.

Because of this, I am not subject to some of the stigma that people living in larger bodies experience.

That being said, I still have bad body image days – most of us do.

We live in a culture that promotes one ideal body type – a thin, white woman.

This culture also promotes dieting and restriction, despite having ample evidence of why fad diets fail and don’t work long term. 

Regular Exercise Often Leads to an Improved Body Image

Since this post will mostly focus on body image and physical activity, let’s talk about why exercise can improve body image.

Exercise certainly has an impact on self esteem, we know that through the research.

Even an acute bout of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or upper body workout can be beneficial for body image.

woman doing bentover row

In fact, exercise offers several benefits outside of just desired weight loss, including better bone health, mental health, memory, coordination, muscle growth, blood sugar control, blood pressure control and more.

A 2017 study published in the journal, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, found that women who engaged in exercise improved their “state body image” significantly, compared to those who read and did not exercise.

Woman running on trail

State body image refers to how a person feels about one’s body at a specific moment in time.

The body image impact was also immediate and lasted for at least 20 minutes.

State Body Image =how one feels about one’s body at a specific moment in time.

L.E. Salci et al. Acute effects of exercise on women with pre-existing body image concerns: A test of potential mediators. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. (2017).

This is likely attributed to endorphins, improved self-efficacy, and self-perceptions of body fat and strength.

Another study published in the journal Body Image, came to an interesting conclusion. The study found that how an exerciser perceives changes to her body is a stronger determinant of body image change than the actual magnitude of those changes.

Again, the focus is on perception.

These results are consistent with previous reviews of exercise training studies, concluding that actual changes in physical fitness are only weakly related to body image change.

woman doing dumbell front raise

Instead, it’s the perceived changes in physical fitness and self-efficacy that are consistently positive predictors of body image change.

5 Ways to Improve Body Image (Other Than Exercise)

Now that we know the perception of how regular exercise can impact body image, let’s talk more about how else to examine body image realities.

If you’re wondering how else to improve body image aside from exercise, try some of these tips below.

1. Examine Your Expectations

Asking yourself to love your body may be too much to ask right now. Maybe you adjust the goal from “loving” it to “liking” it.

Or, maybe it’s even feeling neutral about your body or tolerating it now, both of which are better than hating it constantly.

Try to look at it on a continuum of being kind and respecting it.

measuring tape on hand

Our bodies are the vessels we live in, that allow us to do so much in this world.

What things can you appreciate about your body today? Is it realistic to tolerate it or appreciate it for something?

Check out these tips to fix your unhealthy relationship with food.

2. What else can you attribute to your body, besides aesthetics?

Maybe your legs let you exercise and finish a pyramid workout feeling strong and out of breath.

Your lungs help you breathe. Your feet and toes help keep you balanced and let you walk. 

If you run or compete in sport, are you doing it because you have to or because you love to?

mom running on gravel path with daughter

These things may seem insignificant, but they are all part of what your body does for you!

As previously mentioned, for some people, regular exercise often leads to an improved body image because they are in touch with what their body is capable of, and may finish a workout feeling strong, empowered and confident.

However, this is not a blanket statement for everyone. For some, exercise may be triggering or be a compulsive mechanism. 

This is a great post on how to stop compulsive exercise.

Dangers of Mirrors

I often tell my clients to get away from mirrors, which can be difficult in a gym setting, but you have to do what’s best for you. 

girl sitting on chair looking into mirror

Mirrors can sometimes lead to hyperfocus on aesthetics and physical appearance when we need to take the emphasis away from that.

3. Challenge the Context

Food intake and exercise have been shown to alter body satisfaction in a state-dependent manner.

More often, eating more food and doing less exercise results in poorer body image.

Yet, we eat for many reasons and we know that food is more than fuel.

Deep down, we also know that our bodies can’t change that quickly after a meal, so it is often a perception of our bodies that changes.

This list of intuitive eating resources includes quotes, books, videos, podcasts, blogs and more to help you learn and embrace intuitive eating.

And where did this “so called body perfection” even come from – tv? social media? friends?

Here are some questions to ask yourself to improve body confidence and really challenge the context you are seeing yourself:

  • What are you trying to measure up to and who set the bar like that?
  • Is someone (ie- a company) profiting from you feeling bad about yourself?
  • What are you comparing your body to?
  • If your body looked differently, would you still have this issue?
  • Is the size of the person you’re comparing yourself to even feasible for your body type?
  • When’s the last time you were that size? How did you feel about yourself?
  • Are there any other situations in your life right now bringing your discomfort?
  • Are you feeling guilty after eating?

Again, if it’s the thin ideal (a thin framed white woman), that’s not attainable for many people.

Have you been brainwashed with the diet mentality? Social media and body image are deeply connected. 

Remember, we come in all shapes and sizes, just like dogs.

My shoe size is different than the person next to me – we are not meant to all fit in the same shoes!

Just like our weight, a large portion of it is genetically determined and beyond our control.

Let yourself be exposed to different body shapes and sizes.

Critique who you are following on social media and what images you are looking at and see if you can diversify them. 

4. Look at the Big Picture

Back up a step.

Even if you hate your body today, or tomorrow, remind yourself that one day maybe you can be neutral about it, or be willing to like it.

Try to tolerate it. Be nice to it.

woman holding her shoulder with towel on to hide body

Keep the door open to one day feeling different about it. 

Have you ever had a day where you didn’t think about your body? What was that like?

What happened that day?

5. Learn from the Bad Body Image Days

On hard body image days, have you noticed anything that may be going on? Something that you don’t know how to process at the moment?

Sometimes, it can be easier to pretend the problem is your body size, rather than dealing with a problem or emotion head on.

stack of 3 rocks saying mind, body, soul

One thing that really stuck with me that Kylie Mitchell says is, “positive body image isn’t loving your body. It’s thinking of your body less (or neutrally) because you’re too busy living a vibrant life.”

Affirmations for Body Image

Here are some of my favorite positive body image quotes and affirmations for body image to take some of the stress, pressure and focus off of your body.

Body positive quotes can be used as mantras, or things to remember when you are not feeling like yourself, or having a negative body image day.

I also love these affirmations for body image during pregnancy.

I’ve attributed these quotes when I can find the author. 

  • “I am more than my measurements.” 
  • “Don’t let your mind bully your body.” – June Tomaso Wood
  • “Taking care of yourself is productive.” (Remember that feeding yourself is taking care of yourself).
  • “I am loved. I am enough. I am strong.” 
  • “The way you speak to yourself matters.” 
  • “Positive body image isn’t loving your body. It’s thinking of your body less (or neutrally) because you’re too busy living a vibrant life” – Kylie Mitchell
  • “All bodies are good bodies.” 
  • “I am more than a number on the scale.” 
  • “If we all ate the same and exercised the same, our bodies would still look different.” 
  • “You don’t exist solely to lose weight and be pretty.” 
  • “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” – Marilyn Monroe
  • “You can get your dream body while hating the body you have now. But it’s going to be a long, painful process. Try to love your body, nourish it, and see what happens.” – Emma Xu


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