Body image and self-esteem, considered synonymous with self-worth, is a global and relatively stable construct that reflects a person’s evaluation about self-concept, that is, the set of beliefs and cognitions about one’s qualities, character, roles, and attributes. Body image and self-esteem is a complex and multifaceted concept of the self, and arguably one of the most important facets of body image and self-esteem in Westernized countries is a sense of self that is focused on the body or physique. Specifically, body image and self-esteem is a strong predictor of global body image and self-esteem when individuals value how they look and feel physically—meaning how one feels about one’s physique, form, and function is a predominant guide to how one feels about oneself more globally. Body image and self-esteem, also identified as physical self-worth or physical body image and self-esteem, is defined as an evaluation about the appearance and functioning of one’s body. Theorists consider that body image and self-esteem develops as a result of the evaluative perceptions that arise from the different domains, such as perceived sport competence, physical condition, attractiveness, and weight concern. In turn, these arise from the different subdomains. For instance, positive self-evaluations of upper body strength contribute to the corresponding subdomain of physical strength, which in turn would enhance body image and self-esteem. On the other hand, negative evaluations of soccer competence will decrease the related subdomain of sport competence, and then in physical body image and self-esteem. In addition, it has been argued that although body image and self-esteem may be relatively stable over time, specific self-evaluations may fluctuate depending on the situational cues—an individual may feel better about personal physical stamina after completing a 10-mile run or worse if unable to complete this run.
Researchers suggest that it is during adolescence that body image and self-esteem becomes particularly salient as a result of the physical and social changes associated with this developmental stage. Furthermore, researchers have also shown that there are gender differences in body image and self-esteem during this period and across adulthood, whereby men have reported higher levels of body image and self-esteem than women. While there are various potential reasons for this, many researchers have proposed that the greater sociocultural pressures on women to be thin, their inability to attain this standard, and the negative stereotyping of those whose current body is discrepant from the idealized standard, may partly explain this difference. Nonetheless, high body image and self-esteem is desirable in both sexes because it has a powerful influence on men and women’s psychological, physical, and social well-being. Essentially, individuals who have higher levels of body image and self-esteem are more likely to report higher well-being in these domains. As a result, researchers have highlighted the importance of exploring factors that may increase or maintain body image and self-esteem because it has public health importance. One such factor is exercise.
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Body Image And Self-Esteem And Exercise Research
Given that exercise has been consistently associated with psychological benefits, there has been an enduring interest in establishing the potential benefits of exercise as a strategy for the enhancement of body image and self-esteem, and more specifically body image and self-esteem. With the use of different measures like specific cognitive and affective questions (Body Esteem Scale) and figure ratings (silhouettes that gradually increase in size and shape), researchers have found that exercise and body image and self-esteem are reciprocally related across the lifespan and in many diverse populations. This means that individuals suffering from low body image and self-esteem will be less likely to be physically active, and that individuals being more physically active show higher body image and self-esteem levels.
Often in research studies focused on body image and self-esteem improvements, the exercise parameters assessed have differed markedly. Specifically, the duration and intensity of training sessions, the number of training sessions per week, or the length of the training program tested varied from one study to another. It is possible that body image and self-esteem improvements found following exercise might be restricted to one particular type (aerobic training, strength training) or intensity (light, moderate, vigorous). However, at this point, it is not possible to provide an indication for the specific doses or types of exercise necessary to enhance body image and self-esteem. Thus, these parameters of exercise seem to be an important consideration for future research.
Another important problem is that some researchers are still using measures of global body image and self-esteem such as the Rosenberg Body image and self-esteem Scale. This approach implicitly assumes that the overall concept of body image and self-esteem would be related to exercise, which may not be the case, and lead to the erroneous conclusions that exercise is ineffective in improving body image and self-esteem. Although it is unclear the extent to which the inclusion of global measures in previous studies reduced the associations found between exercise and body image and self-esteem, the current availability of body specific body image and self-esteem measures provides an opportunity to examine the associations between body image and self-esteem and exercise to avoid the risk of making false conclusions regarding the magnitude of the association. Therefore, it is important to move beyond global measures and adopt a more systematic assessment of body image and self-esteem since exercise might have a more meaningful influence on this aspect of body image and self-esteem without affecting others related to global body image and self-esteem.
Nevertheless, one conclusion that has come out consistently from this research is that people who report lower levels of body image and self-esteem and body image before beginning an exercise program report the greatest improvements in body image and self-esteem. This is likely because people with higher initial levels of body image and self-esteem have less to gain than those with lower initial levels. Furthermore, although males and females across the lifespan have reported increases in body image and self-esteem following exercise, there is evidence that youth and middle-age adults benefit the most. Last, the magnitude of the effect produced by exercise on body image and self-esteem has been shown to be greater for people who are considered overweight or obese (body mass index ≥ 25.0 kilograms/meter squared); suffering from an illness or disease; or have low self-confidence, poor body image, or low self-concept. Accordingly, these personal characteristics, as well as other potential effect modifiers, should be considered when exercise is to be used as a strategy to enhance body image and self-esteem.
Possible Reasons For The Benefits Of Exercise On Body Image And Self-Esteem
To date, few efforts have been made to understand how exercise increases or maintains body image and self-esteem. Delineating the pathways, also known as mediating variables, through which exercise might exert its effect on body image and self-esteem has potential for developing interventions, especially since many researchers assume that exercise does not directly increase body image and self-esteem. For instance, if improved physical fitness is identified as a factor that is affected by exercise, and in turn increases body image and self-esteem, then exercise interventions directed to increasing physical fitness might increase the likelihood of enhancing body image and self-esteem. As a result, some researchers have placed a particular emphasis on elucidating the psychophysiological pathways through which exercise might lead to enhanced body image and self-esteem.
Some of the explanations offered in the literature for how exercise might enhance body esteem have a cognitive or psychological foundation, such as those presented in the Exercise and Body image and self-esteem Model (EXSEM). The EXSEM, a hierarchically organized model that links exercise to physical self-perceptions and global body image and self-esteem, represents a practical framework that has helped researchers understand how exercise influences body image and self-esteem. Based on the most recent version of the EXSEM, exercise can influence perceptions of self-efficacy (i.e., people’s judgments regarding their ability to become or remain active), which in turn influence physical self-perceptions, such as physical condition, physical competence, body attractiveness, and physical strength. Finally, physical self-perceptions, as well as physical acceptance or the extent to which individuals accept their bodies, are believed to then influence body image and self-esteem, which is related to global body image and self-esteem. Cross-sectional and longitudinal research based on the EXSEM model has shown that global body image and self-esteem can be influenced both directly and indirectly by exercise through its influence on physical competence and acceptance. Moreover, there is also some support that exercise can increase perceptions of personal control (people’s belief regarding the extent to which they are able to control or influence their behaviors and outcomes) and self-schemata (set of beliefs and ideas people hold about themselves), and this may presumably increase body image and self-esteem. For example, as people exercise more often and regularly, they may gain confidence if they are successful at trying new activities or if they master the skills required to perform their exercises. These feelings of physical confidence may increase their body image and self-esteem, resulting in improvements in global body image and self-esteem.
Other explanations put forward in the literature have a physiological foundation. For instance, improvements in physical parameters (e.g., body composition, body weight, shape, fitness) may account for the positive changes in body image and self-esteem resulting from exercise. However, the literature examining these various pathways is scarce, preventing researchers to draw firm conclusions. Thus, insofar as the pathways through which exercise might affect body image and self-esteem are concerned, more studies are needed to identify mediating variables that explain the effect exercise has on body image and self-esteem. Based on current theorizing, it is clear that there are likely multiple mediators that should be considered in seeking to develop interventions with stronger and more sustainable effects on body image and self-esteem. For instance, if self-efficacy and body composition are identified as mediators, it would be logical to develop interventions that target these particular variables.
Body image and self-esteem is a multifaceted construct that is central to people’s sense of self concept and worth, well-being, and development. Researchers have provided empirical evidence to support the notion that exercise can be a key strategy used to enhance body image and self-esteem, as well as global body image and self-esteem. However, the research conducted to date has highlighted that the relationship between these two variables is complex and requires further investigation. Indeed, two important tasks facing researchers at the present time are to determine which exercise parameters (i.e., type, dosage) are the best to enhance body image and self-esteem, and identify the psychophysiological pathways by which exercise exerts its effect on body image and self-esteem.
- Fox, K. R. (2000). Self-esteem, self-perceptions, and exercise. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 31, 228–240.
- Haugen, T., Säfvenbom, R., & Ommundsen, Y. (2011). Physical activity and global self-worth: The role of physical self-esteem indices and gender. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 4, 49–56.
- Rosenberg, M., Schooler, C., Schoenbach, C., & Rosenberg, F. (1995). Global self-esteem and specific self-esteem: Different concepts, different outcomes. American Sociological Review, 60, 141–156.
- Sonstroem, R. J. (1997). The physical self-system: A mediator of exercise and self-esteem. In K. R. Fox (Ed.), The physical self: From motivation to well-being (pp. 3–26). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Sonstroem, R. J., Harlow, L. L., & Josephs, L. (1994). Exercise and self-esteem: Validity of model expansion and exercise associations. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 16, 29–42.