It moves in all kinds of ways. It reaches. It runs. It remains still. It flexes. It straightens out again — all with little thought. We’re talking about your body. When you move your body with focused attention, you quickly realize that your body is about more than appearances. It functions! Those less-than-perfect legs allow you to walk on a beach. Those flabby arms enable you to hug your loved ones.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do to boost body image. It builds confidence and strength, and releases neurotransmitters that can lift your mood and reduce anxiety.
“We know that exercise improves body image almost to the same degree as short-term psychotherapy,” says Leslie Heinberg, PhD, director of behavioral services for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “Even if the activity doesn’t change your weight or your shape, it will improve your body image.”
Some forms of activity may make you feel especially good about your body:
Most people associate yoga with stretching, but the practice goes far beyond elongating your muscles. Yoga practitioners strive to create balance in the body through performing a series of poses or postures, each of which has specific physical benefits. The practice emphasizes mental and spiritual well-being as well as physical health.
“Yoga teaches you to tune in to your body,” says Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food. “That kind of attention to your body helps you know it well.” You learn to accept your personal limitations and work within them. A bonus: When you leave class, you feel calm, centered and beautiful. In one study, hatha yoga participants were less likely to internalize the thinness ideal than those who did aerobic exercise. The yoga students also reported more body satisfaction than those in the aerobic exercise group.
Pilates is a physical fitness system designed to strengthen the inner core muscles to create length and flexibility in the spine. The exercises teach awareness of breath and alignment of the spine. They improve your body image, not necessarily because you look better (though you will!), but because your core muscles (abs, glutes, inner and outer thighs) grow stronger. After all, if you’re standing tall and maintaining good posture, you’ll feel more powerful and confident.
When you start kickboxing, not only will you learn how to pack a punch, but you’ll also kick your health up a notch. Kickboxing, a combination of boxing, martial arts and aerobics, offers a full-body workout that increases balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination and endurance. In addition to taking your aggressions out on a heavy bag, kickboxing classes often include jumping rope, jumping jacks and shadowboxing drills. You'll also learn some self-defense. The experience is empowering.
4. Martial Arts
Martial arts are about self-discovery, endurance and acceptance. Most important, marital arts provide an avenue for renegotiating your perceptions, so you view your body as a functional system rather than as something purely aesthetic. In other words, instead of seeing “big thighs,” you’ll learn to recognize the power and strength you have in your thighs. A 30-minute training session in martial arts will leave you feeling more confident than an hour on the treadmill. “Knowing that you can defend yourself is incredibly empowering,” says Leslie Goldman, MPH, author of Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image and Re-Imagining the “Perfect” Body. “And when we feel physically empowered, we tend to feel proud of our bodies.”
5. Strength Training
Studies show that pumping iron or doing resistance exercises improves body image and boosts confidence. “A healthy, regulated strength-training program helps you focus on becoming toned and strong,” Dr. Albers says. And strength is power. A study of 39 college-age women found that doing three hours of weight training weekly for six weeks resulted in enhanced body image and improved self-esteem. If you’re monitoring your weight on a scale, however, keep in mind that muscle weighs more than fat. So, as you gain muscle, you may put on a few pounds too.
Creative dance movement seems to set the body (and the mind) free. Whether you like tap dancing, ballroom dancing, belly dancing or simply swaying to the beat, creative dance allows you to experience your body moving without the pressure of achieving perfect form or technique. In fact, one study found that people who are experienced in creative dance movement are more satisfied with their appearance, fitness and body parts than people who have less than five years of experience. Not all dance forms are helpful though. Ballet, jazz and modern dance are based on a structured approach and demand high physical standards that can have a negative impact on body image and self-esteem.
Stop worrying about how you look in that bathing suit and just dive in. Swimming is a great activity to help you reimagine your body, especially if you have a few pounds to lose. “You’re buoyant in the water and there’s a sense of weightlessness,” Goldman says. “And for people who are much larger, or for whom activity on land may be difficult, water is a great equalizer.”