How Running Improves Your Body Image

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I‘ve been thinking a lot about body image in recent weeks. Why do so many of us struggle to love our bodies?

The more I studied the topic of negative body image and the never ending attempt to attain physical “perfection” the more disturbed I became. It is sad that a large marjority of people are dissatisfied with their bodies and often go to dangerous lengths to change it. I admit that I’ve been guilty of body dissatisfaction and I have purposed in my mind to start changing that.

This episode is all about body image. I want to show you how the Western concept of beauty is influencing the world and suggest three ways to improve your body image. You will also be inspired to hear how real people from the MTA community are using running to change the way they look at their bodies.

What is Body Image?

According to Wikipedia, body image refers to “a person’s feelings about the aesthetics and attractiveness of his or her own body.” Your body image is shaped in part by what is culturally popular and this perception can be different from how others actually perceive you.

Throughout history people have always cared to some degree about their level of attractiveness and worried about their ability to live up to the standards of society and what they believe the ideal body is. These cultural norms were unique for centuries until the widespread invasion of the western media. I took a trip to Papua New Guinea in 1995 and the cultural idea of beauty in the tribal areas was that a woman was attractive if she had big thighs (or was heavier in general) and had a large nose. However, as television and other media sources have become more available in these areas the standards are starting to change. Eating disorders are on the rise in places in Africa and the Pacific that had not previously had these conditions.

weight-ganing-pillsWhat’s ironic is that once upon a time in America skinny was uncool. It wasn’t until WWII in the westernized world that being thin was seen as desirable. Often what is rare in a culture is valued. In the last few decades the average BMI (body mass index) has been on the rise in the industrialized world those living in poverty often are heavier because they lack access to healthy foods. In modern times with cheap food sources and sedentary jobs it takes more work to attain a thinner, more muscular figure.

Men’s body image is a topic of increasing interest in academics and popular press and some current research indicates that many men wish to become more muscular than they currently perceive themselves to be. Research also indicates a relationship between their ideas of masculinity and the desire for additional muscle mass. Some studies have suggested this relationship between muscle and masculinity may begin early in life, as boys’ action figure toys are often depicted as super-muscular, often beyond the actual limits of human physiology.

fat_talkStudies have found that females tend to think more about their body shape and endorse thinner figures than men even into old age. When female college students were exposed to pictures of thin women their body satisfaction decreased, but rose when exposed to larger models. In addition many women engage in fat talk (speaking negatively about the weight-related size or shape of one’s body), a behavior that has been associated with weight dissatisfaction, body surveillance, and body shame. In addition, women who overhear others using fat talk may also experience an increase in body dissatisfaction and guilt.

Three Ways to Improve Your Body Image

Examine your focus and thought patterns.
Your world view also helps shape your body image. I believe that I was created by God and am loved by Him unconditionally. My looks and my performance are not the basis of my identity. This affects how I look at myself, other people and the world around me.

You may have a different world view and that’s fine. However, I urge you not to base your identity on the cultural ideals presented in the media or on the approval of others. This will leave you discontent almost every time. Improving your body image has to start in your head and heart. Be careful about the messages you internalize and the thought patterns you dwell on. Make a conscious effort to be more positive about yourself and other people.

I asked people on our Facebook page about how running has impacted their body image. Here are some of the responses I received:

Body Image

Running hasn’t really changed my body that much but it’s changed the way I look at it. I view it with so much more respect now that I know what it’s capable of. I never have days where I feel “fat” anymore because I know this is the size I’m meant to be. -Andria

Running has changed my life. It has reminded me that goals can be achieved with hard work. I can now call myself a marathon runner. If I can do that I can achieve anything else in life. -John

3 years ago I was fat, lazy and old. Now I am a Titanium Maniac, and I am much more mobile now, despite being 52. And I know I can do whatever I choose to do, because I have already proven that several times…. Sub 24 hour hundred miler, 52 in 52 weeks, 8 in 8 days. Self Esteem has everything to do about Self… You make it happen. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise… Jim

Audible promo
The second thing you can do to improve your body image is to go on a media diet.
Advertising is centered around making people feel anxious- that they’re not powerful, smart, strong or beautiful enough. The solution they give you to solve that anxiety is to buy a product. Global spending in the beauty industry in 2011 was over $200 billion and it was one of the only industries that continued to have sales increases during the economic recession. This figure doesn’t even take into account spending on clothing, jewelry, cars and other items people buy to attain a certain status. Americans currently spend more on beauty than they do on education.

Exercise physiologist Heather Hausenblas, who conducted a study on exercise and body image said this,

“Negative body image has grown to almost epidemic proportions in the past 20 years, with as many as 60 percent of adults in national studies saying they don’t like the way their bodies look. Americans spend billions of dollars a year for products designed to change their body size and shape, including diet pills and various cosmetic procedures. Body dissatisfaction is a huge problem in our society and is related to all sorts of negative behavior including yo-yo dieting, smoking, taking steroids and undergoing cosmetic surgery. It affects men and women and all ages, starting with kids who are as young as five years old saying they don’t like how their bodies look.”

If you’re going to make peace with your body you will need to ignore much of the media bombardment and realize that you are good enough.

I was bulimic in for a couple years in high school and struggled with my body image long before that, actually before I can remember. Feeling “fat” in preschool is my oldest memory, actually. Running gave me a connection to my body I never had before. We’re allies now! Not enemies. It’s not about looks, it not about weight…I could gain weight running and I wouldn’t give it up. It’s about working with my body to do the best we can and it took running for me to discover that. -Jayne

When I started running 3 years ago, I refused to run in daylight. I was ashamed of myself and the weight I had put on; I didn’t want people to see me and think “That fat boy can’t run!” Now, after having lost 60 lbs, I don’t care when I run or what people think because I am running! I love how I feel knowing I am improving myself, my life and setting a better example for my children. I am still not where I want to be but I take each day and make the goal of being better than the day before. Progress, although slow, is still progress. -Nathan

The third thing you can do to improve your body image is to focus on strength.
One way to combat poor body image is to concentrate on being strong and healthy, and strong and healthy comes in all shapes and sizes. Direct your attention toward living a healthy, balanced life that includes proper sleep, stress control, hydration, exercise, and eating a healthy, balanced diet. When you start to take better care of yourself you gain energy and have a more positive outlook on life. This starts a cycle where you’re able to feel good about yourself and achieve your goals. Seek to become the strongest version of yourself.

What matters most is how you see yourself!

What matters most is how you see yourself!

I am doing the Flying Pirate Half marathon next week, and since the beginning of the year have lost 25 lbs with training. My self esteem has exploded. -Kenley

Research also shows that exercise improves body image and health. Running can give you a sense of control over your life which builds self confidence and increases the quality of your life. Promising research also shows a link between running and a healthier brain. Cardiovascular exercise pumps oxygen and glucose rich blood into your brain which can spark the growth of fresh nerve cells and new blood vessels staving off the decline of many brain functions. Being satisfied with who you are is one of the best ways to improve your mental health.

I’ve personally found that exercise, particularly running is one key to developing a positive body image and self esteem and finding my inner strength. When you start looking at your body as strong and capable then it’s about more than just looks. So run bravely ahead. Don’t wait until you feel good about your body before becoming a runner, before signing up for races or before taking on challenges. There is no one way that a runner looks. People are not going to be judging you at races based on how you look. And if they do, it’s their problems, not yours.

I suffer from bad social anxiety and i didn’t even want to run because of people looking at me. I’ve been running for about 3months now and will be doing a 5k on sunday and half marathon in 11 weeks for charity with 100’s of people watching. There are more benefits from running than most people realize. -Steve

Absolutely, I am down 60lbs, returned to running marathons, look better and feel better that I ever have. Oh and I can beat all my kids racing! Now I am sharing my story with others via talks and my blog -B.J.

I dropped 100+ lbs using running. I changed shape, and have been a lot happier with my appearance. It’s a great ego boost. -Eric

I know that running is not the magic formula for solving all body image woes. Unless you make a conscious choice to accept your body, it doesn’t matter what weight you are. The fact is that losing 5 pounds isn’t going to make you any happier. You have to decide to be happy now and live life to the fullest. I’ve experienced this personally. We all have figure “flaws.” Instead of focusing on how big my thighs are I can appreciate the fact that they’ve carried me through many marathons.

I used to think I had big thighs. Now I think of them as powerful, they got me through a 100 mile race. I think they look dang fine. No complaints now. Sandy

Running has changed me in that I don’t care if my body isn’t perfect- it gets me where I need to go. That is enough! Emily

It is time to come to peace with your body, no matter how old you are. Start by examining your focus and changing negative thought patterns. Eliminate negative media and people from your life. This may mean that you need to find different tv shows to watch or even block certain people on Facebook. It may mean that you need to ask friends not to complain about their body in front of you. Finally, focus on becoming the strongest version of yourself. Running can help you find that inner strength. It can help you live a full and meaningful life.

Leave a comment below about how running has impacted the way you look at yourself. Angie

Sources for Body Image Podcast

Videos Mentioned in this episode:
Cameron Russell TED talk
Brittany Gibbons TED talk

13 Responses to How Running Improves Your Body Image

  1. Jayne June 1, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Hi Angie and Trevor, avid listener in the tapering stage of my first marathon! *nail biting* I want to comment on the subject of body image as it is something I have basically centered my existence around, whether I wanted to or not. I’ve had an eating disorder and behaviors as such since I was very young. After dealing with the trauma of bulimia in highschool and attempting to recover on my own, I ended up on the other side, sedentary, and much larger than I ever was. Running came into my life out the clear blue sky. I had been a ballet dancer for 10 years and very active previously, but ballet as beautiful and wonderful as it is completely fed my eating disorder and I quit it outright because of that. Now I am a runner…have been one for about two years, and running is so much about what my body can do instead of how it looks. I have begun to accept the fact that this is how my body is meant to be…that even though I am still clinically overweight and always have been, I eat well and my body can run strong for 20 miles and I am so thankful! That being said, running can have a way (depending on my mental health regarding my eating disorder) of bringing those triggers on as well. It’s a fine line I (run? haha) and it’s something I deal with always. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing and am now writing a children’s book about body image. I have my struggles to thank for that, so it’s best to see the bright side. Running has brought me so much joy and is the absolute only thing that makes my body an ally as opposed to an enemy. Thank you for making this podcast and including these topics. Conversation is the most important tool we have to fight the social outlook on weight/health/body image. Hugs!!

    • Angie June 3, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

      Jayne- I really appreciate you sharing your struggles and for the quote that we used on the podcast. You’re right that we need to get these issues out in the open and live with self-awareness. Keep loving yourself and running strong! You’re going to have a great marathon.

  2. tiya June 2, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Before I starved running I liked NOTHING about my body. Now, tho I know my body isn’t perfect and there are still things I’d like to change I’m proud of how it looks and feels. It’s strong and healthy. I’ve still got a way to go but now it not about being skinny it’s about being healthy and strong. T.M

    • Angie June 3, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

      Tiya- It’s so refreshing to hear how your perspective has changed. It definitely takes time and we all have setbacks with our self image. But strong and healthy is the only way to truly live. Keep up the great work!

  3. JM June 2, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    I hadn’t listened to the podcast yet when I first posted the reply to this episode, was saving it for my long run so I kept it a surprise. But I’m obviously far too passionate about this topic because it seemed I already posted on facebook and you read it on the show! Thank you so much!!!

    • Angie June 3, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

      We appreciate your enthusiasm. Thanks for sharing your story!

  4. Trevor C June 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    20 years ago, when I was 20, I avoided running because I didn’t want to take the chance I would lose weight. At 6-6 and 180-190lbs I really wanted to put on some pounds, now 40lbs later I run (and cycle) to try to keep under a certain weight.
    There was a sweetspot somewhere there in the middle but now it’s more about having fun with friends than trying to look perfect.

    • Angie June 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Trevor- I guess with age there does come a certain perspective on things. There’s definitely more to life than a certain number on the scale. Keep having fun and being active!

  5. Jill Will Run June 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    I applaud you for touching on the eating disorder/body image subject of late. They are sensitive issues… beyond just how running can improve body image, all runners (and people in general) need to start thinking about how they talk about things. It’s so ingrained in our culture to say that you’re going to “run off that [INSERT FOOD HERE]” or that you are “bad” because you ate something. This type of talk can be very triggering to those that struggle, but it’s also demoralizing to anyone’s body image.

    Thank you for helping to spread the message about the importance of loving oneself for who you are, not an imaginary form of who you think the media says you should be!

    • Angie June 3, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

      Hi Jill- Body image, self esteem, and eating disorders are definitely touchy subjects. You’re right that we need to have open dialogue about these issues and recognize how certain behaviors and negative conversation habits can affect others. I know my eyes have been opened about “fat talk” and food talk. Hopefully we can all be a force of positive change.

  6. Maria June 3, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    I am 52 years old, my hair is going grey, I have stretch marks on my tummy from three pregnancies and my face is slowly collecting more and more wrinkles. But hey, I have earned all of that. I am not going to hide it under dyes and ‘magic’ creams. (Besides I’d rather spend my money on a new running top 🙂 )
    I think, though, that one of the main reasons that I am happy with my body is because of what I know it is still capable of. It can get out here and run. It can run in the heat, or the cold, or the rain. It can keep running up those steep hills, or muddy, uneven tracks. Instead of doing less and less as I get older I am doing more and more and it’s all thanks to running.

    • Angie June 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

      Maria- I love your attitude and mentality. Instead of seeing our “wear marks” as a negative we need to embrace them as part of living a great life. I’m so glad that running has opened new horizons to you. Keep running strong!

  7. Amy @ {Life to the Full} June 5, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    Great podcast! I’m glad you covered such an important issue. Running has helped me immensely with my body image because I view my body as a “machine” and you need to eat (and eat semi-healthy, at least!) to fuel your body. The freedom to run and be active is such a blessing; even if my body isn’t a size “0”, that doesn’t mean I can’t feel good about myself. Our culture is SO crazy about weight and diet. I do my best to tune all of the calorie counting business out and focus on eating healthy, but not being restrictive 🙂 I do enjoy chocolate and pizza from time to time. God’s Word says our body is a temple, so we need to take care of it!

    Also – I had my first baby 3 months ago and I couldn’t believe the pressure on your body image, even when pregnant! Gaining too much weight, losing the baby weight, etc. Bleh! I ran through the pregnancy and staying active helped me to not worry about my drastically changing figure. Many women told me my body would never look the same, I would have “saggy” abs, jeans won’t fit, etc. Now three months postpartum, I have a healthy baby and I’m feeling much more like my pre-baby self.

    Thank God for running!

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