By K. Aleisha Fetters, Contributor
Every person has a body. But in many ways, it’s your body image – your own subjective perception of how your body looks – that determines your health.
For instance, research from the University of California–Santa Barbara suggests that poor body image is detrimental to both mental and physical health. And in one Journal of Health Psychology study of 100 college-age women, researchers found that the more dissatisfied women were with their bodies, the less likely they were to exercise.
Unfortunately, the average American’s body image isn’t exactly rooted in health or even reality, explains Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, chief clinical officer of Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. “When some people look in the mirror, what they see is very different than their actual reflections,” Bermudez says.
That’s because everything from media images (hello, Photoshop!) to cultural backgrounds and early-life experiences influence whether people see themselves as “fat,” “scrawny,” “ugly” or anything else – irrespective of how they actually look. For instance, when girls see their mothers diet, they become twice as likely to be concerned about their own weight by age 5, according to research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
So how can you combat decades of experience and emerge with a healthier body image? We combed through the research and tapped top experts to find out.
1. Switch Up Your Exercise Goals
There’s no end to the benefits of exercise – and, if you focus on the right benefits, a better body image can be one of them. In fact, according to a study published in Body Image, women who exercise to reduce stress or feel healthier enjoy greater improvements in their body image compared to those who exercise primarily for appearance reasons.
“Instead of focusing on what your body looks like leaving the gym, focus on everything it can do while you’re there,” says Lisa Lewis, a Massachusetts-based licensed psychologist. For instance, that could mean forgetting about losing weight and instead focusing on improving your mile time. As your training progresses, you’ll witness your body completing feats it never could before, and your appreciation for your body will only stand to benefit, she says.
2. Meditate Daily
Meditation can do more than help people stress less. In a 2015 study from the University of Texas–Austin, women who participated in guided self-compassion meditation for about 20 minutes every day for three weeks reported significant reductions in body dissatisfaction, body shame and appearance-based feelings of self-worth while enjoying the increased appreciation for their bodies. What’s more, they felt the positive effects of their sessions even three months after stopping them. Audio files of all of the meditations performed in the study are available online at selfcompassion.org.
3. Devote More Time to Your Hobbies
“What can you do that’s really cool?” Lewis asks. While most people think of running and dancing as physical skills, it’s easy to forget that playing a musical instrument, knitting, singing, cooking or painting requires just as much physical mastery, she says. Recognizing your body’s unique set of skills – and regularly engaging in activities that tap them – is vital to building a healthier body image. “Use your body in ways that make you feel good,” she says.
4. Perform Strength Training
Hate pounding the pavement? Pick up some weights instead. A Psychological Reports meta-analysis concludes that, while aerobic exercise like running does spur improvements in exercisers’ body image, strength training does an even better job. Two weekly sessions may be enough to give your body image boosts, suggests research from Cornell University. In a study, older women who participated in a strength training program twice each week significantly improved their body image and satisfaction in just 10 weeks.
5. Shut Down Body Shaming
Poor body images are contagious, with research published in Sex Roles showing that young women are more likely to report body dissatisfaction if their friends regularly discuss their own body image concerns, exercise or dieting. Bermudez recommends surrounding you with people who speak positively about their bodies as well as others’ bodies. If your friends slip into any fat-shaming behavior, don’t hesitate to interject and encourage healthier talk. The shift in conversation will benefit everyone’s body images.