Body Image and Physical Activity

Kate Maliha

Reprinted from "Women" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (4), pp. 37-38

For many women, the body doesn't always seem like a very safe place. This can be especially true for those coping with issues of mental health and addictions. In some of these cases, it seems safer to numb bodily sensations than to fully experience a range of feelings. If this happens, we lose the natural cues from our bodies that tell us how we are feeling, how to regulate ourselves, and when we are in emotional danger.

The Punishment Perspective

Many of my clients had early experiences that instilled a 'punishment' perspective of physical activity, making it difficult for them to do physical activities as an adult. Coaches, gym teachers, parents and other adults unknowingly reinforce this idea that physical activity must be painful and that a high activity level or a slim physical size is virtuous. I have seen the damage these ideas can cause, bringing a sense of shame and humiliation to a child who may later develop an unhealthy relationship with eating and exercise.

The media and advertising also reinforce the punishment perspective of exercise by creating a climate of fear and shame around the female body. The underlying message is usually that successful girls and women under-eat and over-exercise, and to do so is morally virtuous. Many girls and women internalize the idea that they are not good enough. They punish themselves with unnatural eating and exercise habits instead of making healthy lifestyle choices based on being in touch with their appetites and on a sense of enjoyment.

The Self-Care Perspective

Health and body image are enhanced by physical activity. We can focus on the good feelings associated with moving our bodies rather than on our appearance. Far too often, however, we think of our bodies as vessels to be viewed by others, and our attention is on how others experience our bodies. When we move our bodies solely for the purpose of changing our appearance, we lose a valuable opportunity to connect with and to nurture ourselves.

My clients deal with a variety of issues, including eating disorders, addiction, poor body image, and exercise disorders. Many clients experience considerable fear around the body and they have preconceived ideas about exercise.

One client over-exercised constantly, to the point of fatigue, colds, joint injury and general erosion of her health. Against the advice of her physician, she continued to do increasingly strenuous exercise, risking permanent joint damage. As we worked on body image, relaxation techniques and creative movement in a safe environment, she came to see that her behaviour was self-destructive. Although many of us have internalized the idea that our needs are too much and our bodies need to be controlled, we can learn to discontinue self-harming behaviours and replace them with nurturing ones.

Creating Strategies for Self-Care

Much research has been done on the development of guidelines or exercise protocols for conditioning and disease prevention, but up until recently very little has been done on exercise and mental health. New studies in exercise psychology are attempting to learn more about women's mental relationship to physical activity. For instance, two recent studies by McMaster University researcher Kathleen Martin-Ginis found that women felt worse about themselves when

  1. exercising in front of a mirror and

  2. they weren't exposed to a variety of fitness leaders of different shapes and sizes.*

These findings reinforce what I have already learned when working with my clients and I look forward to more research in this field.

For many of us, it is very difficult to let go of the idea that the body must be controlled and punished with diet and exercise. We are constantly bombarded with conflicting health information and the continual message that the purpose of physical activity is weight loss.

Nevertheless, a healthy relationship with physical activity is possible when one's goal is self-care. Below are some strategies for creating a healthy relationship with your body and with physical activity.

Making physical activity a more nurturing experience

  • Avoid exercising in front of mirrors when you can

  • Create an atmosphere of emotional safety

  • Realize that you have your own specific shape and learn to appreciate your uniqueness

  • Dismiss media and advertising images that make you feel bad about yourself or that urge you to criticize the bodies of others

  • Challenge criticism of your body and the bodies of others

  • Realize that your body is precious and you are worth taking care of

  • Focus on the pleasure that movement brings rather than on appearance

  • Pay attention to how your body feels and respond appropriately to signals of pain or fatigue by resting/discontinuing the activity

  • Experiment with ways to make physical activity pleasurable and peaceful. You may want to incorporate the use of candles, music, scents, colour and imagination/creativity.

About the author

Kate was a fitness director and personal trainer for over 12 years. She is currently in private practice as a movement coach, combining body image techniques with somatic education. She also teaches body image workshops to high school students across the province. Kate can be reached at (604) 224-5449 or

  • Martin Ginis, K.A., Jung, M.E. & Gauvin, L. (2003). To see or not to see: Effects of exercising in mirrored environments on sedentary women's feeling states and self-efficacy. Health Psychology, 22, 354-361. and Fleming, J.C. & Martin Ginis, K.A. (2004). The effects of exercise video models on women's self-presentational efficacy and exercise task efficacy. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 1-10.