Body Image And Self-Esteem

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

body-image-and-self-esteem-sports-psychologyGiven  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.


  1. Fox, K. R. (2000). Self-esteem, self-perceptions, and exercise. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 31, 228–240.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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