This post was written by one of our contributors; PhD student Garcia Ashdown Franks
…Why it is (high) time to shift away from appearance and towards other reasons to exercise
I recently saw a Facebook post calling for football players for a weekend match. The post explained how the team was in need of players, and encouraged individuals to sign up for the matches to, “get some exercise in the bank to cancel out those inevitable calories from Christmas parties and dinners.” These beliefs regarding calorie control or weight loss as the primary reasons to exercise are so ingrained in our society, that when we see posts like this, we don’t even think twice to question them.
In reality, these narratives are problematic and troublesome.
Framing exercise in this way can lead us to feel guilty when we fail to exercise, and has been linked to greater risks of disordered eating type behaviours such as over exercising and restricted eating (1). In addition, it has been found that the majority of individuals who successfully lose weight will regain it within a year, and that this yo-yo type of dieting or weight cycling has detrimental effects on our mental health and our physical health (2). This also highlights the fact that focusing solely on weight loss as a reason for exercise, which may be unattainable to most, can be highly detrimental to our health.
Recent body-image research has also found that focusing on health goals related to the appearance of our body is more frequently associated with less engagement in positive health behaviours (i.e. physical activity) as well as a more negative body-image (3). Women who exercise for appearance reasons are also more likely to experience eating disorder symptoms (such as negative feelings towards the body), as well as higher symptoms of depression and lower self-esteem (3).
Conversely, focusing on the functionality of the body has been linked to more positive body image and greater health-promoting behaviours such as engaging in physical activity (3). Indeed, it has been found among adolescent females that body appearance-related pride (i.e. I am proud of how good my body looks) was negatively related to levels of activity, while body fitness-related pride (i.e. I am proud of how strong my body is) was positively related to levels of activity (4). Taken together, these findings suggest that focusing on appearance and weight loss as reasons to be active are linked to a lower likelihood of staying active, and a higher likelihood of negative physical and mental health consequences. As such, it is high time to move away from this view of exercise. This article will explore three other reasons that can motivate us to be active.
Reason #1: Mood/Affect:
It is now quite well known that exercise can improve our mood and affect both during and after a session. To clarify, affect can be defined as an emotional state (5). As such, mood is a component within affect. A recent study looked at whether the duration of a moderate-vigorous intensity treadmill walking bout and its recovery period would have a different effect on mood. Surprisingly, the authors found that generally, exercise had a positive effect on mood (decreased feelings of depression, hostility and fatigue), regardless of exercise duration (between 10 and 60 minutes) and recovery period (6). These results are exciting as they show exercise doesn’t need to be extremely long or intense to make us feel better, and that even just ten minutes of activity can lead to positive changes in mood, which can last up to half an hour.
Similarly, a relationship was found between self-paced exercise, positive affect and exercise adherence, meaning that participating in our own chosen exercise type/duration leads to more positive affect, and a greater likelihood to adhere to exercise (7). A separate study found that exercise improves our affect after a session, however we are much likelier to stick to an exercise routine if we feel good during exercise (8). Taken together, these findings highlight that exercise can improve our mood and affect, and that these improvements can encourage us to maintain our participation in that activity, particularly if we choose an activity we find enjoyable.
Reason #2: Mental Health:
Not only can physical activity improve how we feel acutely during it and just after, it also has the potential to affect us more long term through our mental health. Specifically, there is now a great deal of evidence that exercise among the general population can prevent common mental illnesses, as well as a great deal of support for the use of exercise as an additional treatment for those with a diagnosed mental illness (9).
A large study pooling several studies together that included over 250,000 people found that compared to those with low levels of activity, those with high levels had lower odds of developing depression (10). The authors also found that activity had a protective effect against the development of depression for youth, adults and elderly individuals. These results were particularly exciting as this protective effect was present in Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania, suggesting a global trend. This study adds to the growing evidence-base that exercise can act as a buffer for the emergence of depression.
There is less evidence regarding the protective effect of exercise on anxiety, however it has been found that adults who engage in regular levels of activity experience less symptoms of anxiety (11). Interestingly, exercise seems to have the greatest protective effect against panic disorder, a sub-disorder of anxiety (12). It has now been confirmed that among individuals with a diagnosis of anxiety or without, a bout of exercise is anxiolytic (anxiety reducing), and that among individuals with a diagnosis of depression or without, exercise exerts antidepressive effects (13).
Reason # 3: Cognition:
In addition to exercise being beneficial to our mood and mental health, it is also well known that it has positive effects on our cognition, i.e. our brain functions. Exercise has been found to improve both the structure and the function of the brain in adults (14). This is particularly important for ageing adults, as exercise may decrease risk for intellectual impairment and help to prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease (15). In addition, cognitive abilities such as learning, memory and executive processes have been linked to exercise (15). Finally, and of interest to students who may be reading this, is the fact that various studies have now confirmed improvements in academic achievement following exercise (16).
The Bottom Line:
After reading this article hopefully you’ve learned a bit more about the evidence backing the benefits of exercise for mood, mental health and cognition. It should also be clear that exercising only for appearance reasons can result in negative psychological and physical health consequences. Not only this, but you are much less likely to remain engaged in physical activity pursuits if you’re doing them solely for the goal of improving your appearance. So, the next time someone asks you to work out with them to shed a few pounds, let them know there are many more important (and evidenced-based) reasons to exercise.
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(16) Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The effects of acute exercise on mood, cognition, neurophysiology, and neurochemical pathways: a review. Brain Plasticity, 2(2), 127-152.