Many women in the United States are unhappy with how their body looks. But new research suggests that a single bout of physical exercise can make us feel stronger, thinner, and happier overall with our bodies.

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A new study explores the impact of a single 30-minute exercise session on body image.

A Gender and Body Image study from 2013 reports that only 11 percent of adult U.S. women over the age of 45 are satisfied with the appearance of their body. Body image dissatisfaction is a major risk factor for eating disorders and other types of unhealthy behavior.

Body image dissatisfaction is thought to mainly affect women, but some studies have shown that “normative discontent” – that is, the idea that people are not happy with how their bodies look as a result of societal beauty norms – affects both men and women to a comparable extent.

A new study carried out by researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Okanagan, Canada, looks into the potential of physical activity to improve body image.

Specifically, Kathleen Martin Ginis, a professor in UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences, together with her graduate student Lauren Salci, set out to investigate the effect of a single 30-minute bout of exercise on women’s bodily self-perception.

The findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

“Women, in general, have a tendency to feel negatively about their bodies,” says Prof. Ginis. “This is a concern because poor body image can have harmful implications for a woman’s psychological and physical health including increased risk for low self-esteem, depression, and for eating disorders.”

Prof. Ginis and Salci compared the physical self-perceptions and body images of women who exercised moderately for 30 minutes, with those who sat down and read.

They recruited 60 young women of university age (19 years on average) who already had body image concerns and who engaged in physical activity regularly.

These women were randomly assigned to do either 30 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous” exercise, or engage in quiet reading while sitting.

The researchers evaluated the women’s “state body image,” which is how one feels about one’s body at a specific moment in time.

They also assessed the women’s “physical self-efficacy,” meaning how they felt about their general fitness, physical functioning, and ability to perform specific tasks. Finally, researchers evaluated the participants’ physical self-perception and affect.

The women who worked out improved their body image significantly, compared with those who did not exercise. The effect was almost immediate and lasted for a minimum of 20 minutes after exercise.

The affect and physical self-efficacy did not change significantly – instead, it was the self-perceptions of body fat and strength that improved considerably after the exercise.

In other words, the positive effect did not seem to depend on a change in mood; rather, it was due to the women seeing themselves as “stronger and thinner.”

The authors note that their study has important practical implications, as Prof. Ginis emphasizes the fact that exercise interventions are an effective way to boost psychological well-being.

We all have those days when we don’t feel great about our bodies. This study […] shows one way to feel better is to get going and exercise. The effects can be immediate.”

Prof. Kathleen Martin Ginis

She concludes, “We think that the feelings of strength and empowerment women achieve post exercise, stimulate an improved internal dialogue. This, in turn, should generate positive thoughts and feelings about their bodies which may replace the all too common negative ones.”

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