Thursday, 7 February 2013

Short-term exercise boosts body image without making any physical difference

Many people find exercise adherence difficult after the first few weeks because the fun of something new has worn off, and yet their programme has yet to deliver any tangible changes in terms of body shape and weight. A new study offers a potential way to galvanise people's motivation during this tricky spell. Katherine Appleton reports that people's body image improves after just two weeks of moderate exercise, even though no physical change has yet materialised. The finding suggests a focus on body image changes could help novice exercisers enjoy early rewards during the early stages of a new programme.

Appleton recruited 34 people (16 men) to take part, all of whom led sedentary lifestyles prior to the study. The effects of two two-week programmes were compared. One involved 3 sessions of 40 minutes reading in a gym per week; the other involved the same time spent exercising in a gym at moderate intensity (getting sweaty and out of breath). Some participants did the reading fortnight first, others did the exercise fortnight first. There was a two-week gap between the intervention fortnights.

The participants filled out body image questionnaires and had their body weight and shape measured at the start and end of the exercise and reading fortnights (the results were hidden from them). The key result is that neither two weeks' exercise or reading made any difference to body weight and shape, but a fortnight of thrice weekly exercise did improve the participants' perceptions of their body. This was true for men and women.

Specifically, despite the lack of any objective change, both men and women reported feeling more satisfied with their looks; feeling more fit, toned and active; healthier; and happier with specific parts of their body (paradoxically, fat anxiety and weight vigilance did not change). In contrast, body image satisfaction dipped slightly after the reading fortnight.

Appleton believes this is the first time body image effects such as this have been documented in the absence of any physical changes. She said this suggests "a focus on body image [rather than other goals] ... may be more rewarding for those embarking on an exercise programme," although she stressed that this needs to be tested. It's a complex issue, she explained, because people can vary in their body image ideals, and in some cases an excess focus on body image can backfire, especially if exercise newbies start comparing themselves to trim regulars at the gym.

There are also some issues with the study methodology. The sample was small and the researcher can't be 100 per cent sure that the participants didn't exercise outside of the allotted gym time (although this wouldn't undermine the main finding of body image change in the absence of physical change). More problematic are the potential effects of researcher contact, and the possibility the participants were giving the answers they thought were expected of them after the exercise fortnight, especially as they were told the study was about the effects of exercise on "various body-related parameters."


Appleton, K. (2012). 6 x 40 mins exercise improves body image, even though body weight and shape do not change. Journal of Health Psychology, 18 (1), 110-120 DOI: 10.1177/1359105311434756

--Further reading--
Is the benefit of exercise a placebo effect?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

I believe that there are many more abstract reasons for this increased body image. One such reason is the humanistic perspective of psychology. If you spend 40 minutes reading alone at your home not only did you not try to go out and be socialized but you also didn't try anything that would break up your routine. If you were to take 40 minutes of your time to go to a gym not only does that reward yourself mentally with a sense of initiative, but it also changes the way other people think about you, and that matters a lot to a person even if if the people in question are complete strangers to him/her. If there were not other people in the world no body would have a standard to say what a good or bad body looked liked, no body would care. In fact there are other people on this planet so we try to emulate those who we deem have well-built bodies, and when we fall short we get down on ourselves. I myself deal with this problem and even though I'm trying to change for the better I lack motivation often because I see scarce results in my endeavors.

Agrodut Mandal said...

When I run I usually end up going for a little longer than I intend to (because I lose track of time or just want to make it to that next landmark), so I like a cardio machine to keep track of my minutes. For the most multitasking I like to do bicep curls and overhead presses with free weights while on the stairclimber. That gets me sweating faster and more profusely than an elliptical, though I do like the elliptical for when I'm having a hard time motivating.
Agrodut Mandal
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Kelsey Necker said...

I totally agree with this article. Over this past winter break from classes, i joined a gym in hopes to improve my body image for spring break. I then worked out for about a week with one of my friends. Once she left for school i unfortnately stopped going to the gym because i did not have my work out partner with me plus the lack of motivation. Even within the first week, i felt so much better about myself even though there was no weight loss. Usually when people work out they tend to eat healthier foods vs. fast food and junk food. Doing so makes your body feel so much better. Like the article mentioned, not only does it make you feel better about yourself but you also get positive feedback from friends and family because they too wish they had that time and motivation to work out. Working out gives you an overall awesome feeling!
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ChristianKl said...

The absence of visible physical changes doesn't mean that no physical changes exist. Hormone levels might change.

Cat Cook said...

I agree with the above poster that "no change in shape/weight" doesn't mean nothing is going on. It would be interesting to see this study from a biological perspective in addition to the pure psychological one. I'd think possibly endorphin release and higher dopamine levels would be a factor also. I am definitely inclined, from personal experience to agree with Ms. Appleton's conclusions! I feel so much better about myself even after just one gym visit than I do if I spent that time being sedentary. It's also due to the fact that knowing that I'm doing something good for myself creates a sense of pride, too. It will be interesting to see if more studies like this come to similar conclusions.

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