3 Ways Movement Improves Body Image for Women

If you’ve ever struggled to maintain a positive body image, you’re (very much) not alone. 

With so many disruptors around us at nearly every stage of life—from social media and celebrity culture to unrealistic beauty standards—it can be difficult to view our bodies as “good enough.” And though anyone can experience poor body image, women often feel the brunt of this insecurity. According to research, up to 84% of American women feel dissatisfied with their bodies at some point during their lifetimes.

A healthy body image (aka feeling good in your skin) enables self-esteem, secures confidence, and can help maintain physical plus mental health. On the other hand, those who struggle with it are prone to negative impacts on their self-esteem or social lives and are more likely to develop depression or disordered eating

Luckily, movement can be a powerful tool to cultivate a kinder relationship with your body—and thrive in it. A small study found that even 30 minutes of exercise (as part of a consistent routine) can positively impact a woman’s body image. 

To explain three ways movement does just that, plus introduce a few simple practices for promoting a healthy body image, we turned to expert Madeline Lucas. A licensed clinical social worker and therapist for the mental wellness platform Real, she specializes in shifting personal narratives and finding self-acceptance, resilience, and joy.

1. Movement allows you to appreciate your body for what it does, not just how it looks. 

Fun fact: It takes 200 muscles harmoniously coordinating for you to take a single step forward. Every time you sit down, your quads, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, and core muscles all spring to action together. Your body is an incredible machine, designed to move you. 

A key step to improving body image and cultivating gratitude for what your body enables you to do? Shift your mindset from perceiving movement as a means to an end (‘I work out so I can be a size X’) and instead notice it as an experience in and of itself (‘I’m lifting 10lbs with one arm by myself!.’) 

“Try to engage in movement as a means of refocusing on your presence in your body, absent of judgments or anxieties around how you ‘should’ look,” says Lucas. “The positive psychological effects of exercise can improve self-efficacy and confidence in what a woman’s body can do.”

For some, leaning into body neutrality—which promotes respecting your body for its ability to function, regardless of how it looks—is particularly useful. Unlike body positivity, this reframe isn’t about loving your body no matter what. It’s about accepting it even if it’s not what you prefer it to be. 

Recent research also backs the power of this mindset. In one 2018 study, women who were told to focus on how their bodies functioned during a workout measured significantly higher in body satisfaction compared to those who were prompted with appearance-focused cues. Women are also more likely to stay regularly active when motivated by short-term objectives like relieving stress or daily well-being than appearance-based motives, according to another 2017 study.

This also grants an opportunity to unlearn the idea that the hardest workout will always make the most impact on your body, leaving space to prioritize what makes you feel in your body. “The real focus is engaging intentionally and intuitively,” says Lucas. “It can be stretching your body on the floor, nurturing your muscles and joints. Or it could be dancing around in the shower, releasing some stress.” (P.S. Need a stretch? We’ve got you.

2. Movement requires mindfulness and attention that can mute negative thoughts. 

Put simply, movement can bring us into the present moment. Following the new Dance Cardio combo you learned, holding a squat, or balancing on that ball in Barre class all require high degrees of concentration and attention, distracting us from self-judgment or negative self-talk. 

“Movement can ground us back in our bodies—and away from those anxious or spiraling thoughts about body image,” explains Lucas. Research shows that working out can be an especially effective tool for managing anxious thoughts (like those rooted in poor body image) because exercise increases cognitive ability, boosts the availability of neurochemicals like serotonin and GABA, plus activates executive function regions of our brains.

Pro tip: Try a quick body scan or loving-kindness meditation (obé has options!) before you take a class or get active outside. Meditating in this way can clear your mind, help you focus, build body awareness, plus cue you to move more mindfully with an emphasis on sensation. 

3. Movement can strengthen your relationship with yourself. 

The more you use movement to recognize (and celebrate!) the function of your body, the better you can get to know it. In turn, the more in tune you are with your body, the easier it becomes to appreciate and respect it. 

Psychologically, the positive perks of movement are plentiful: improved mood, reduced stress, better self-esteem, and greater confidence in your physical abilities are just a few. The common thread? These effects can strengthen your sense of self-worth, help your brain associate your body with positive feelings, and improve your relationship with yourself. 

Two key reminders: One, you don’t have to love every inch of your body to start developing a healthier attitude towards it. And two, any amount of movement is beneficial and impactful to your body. “When we create high expectations or rules on what ‘counts’ as exercise, we can get too caught up on the physical, appearance-based effects of it,” explains Lucas. 

Each time you show up for your body—whether that’s going for a morning walk before work, taking a yoga class with obé at home, or dancing with friends—is a chance to tune in, connect, and recognize what makes you feel good. 

If you struggle to land in this mental space, Lucas recommends calibrating with these practices. 

Tip 1: Start small.

Shift your attention to the way your body moves throughout your daily life. Watch your hands pour your morning coffee, feel your arms lift your pet for a cuddle, or focus on the motion of your stride as you walk to the store, suggests Lucas. Tune in to your body enabling you to live your life. “Feeling stuck with what to wear on a night out? Look at yourself in the mirror and say: This gorgeous body is about to take me out on the town to see friends, meet a cute guy, or have an adventure.”

Tip 2: Unpack your media consumption.

Get curious about what you’re engaging with online. In a time of prolific social media use (and heavy filters), it can be challenging to avoid comparison—and realize what’s real. Lucas suggests creating boundaries around your consumption to focus on content that reinforces what you want to nurture. “Adjusting how we spend our time comparing on social media or judging based on how others look can make it more natural to refocus on appreciating our body, too.”

Tip 3: Make a gratitude list.

Write down all the things you appreciate about yourself and your life that have nothing to do with your physical appearance (thought starters: friends, hobbies, micro-joys, personality strengths). Lucas recommends returning to this list when you’re in self-judgment mode. “Ask yourself: How many of these things have anything to do with how I look?” she emphasizes. 

Tip 4: Seek out support.

“Enlist some social support!” says Lucas. Tap a friend, family member, or work buddy who may be working on building more appreciation for their body, so you can show up for each other. Lucas suggests sharing supportive affirmations, making a pact on social media limits, or checking in weekly with one small thing you did to be kinder to your body. 

Tip 5: Find positive affirmations.

If you notice negative self-talk creeping in, drop back into your body and objectively notice, says Lucas. Some affirming thoughts to plant in your mind: “My body deserves love and care. I nurture my body with movement. I am grateful for all my body does for me. I accept my body where I am. I deserve to feel good in my body. My body allows me to live this life,” she offers. 

Curious about mental health offerings from Real? obé members can get started with one free month. Head to Real, join on a monthly plan, create an account, then enter code OBE at checkout.*

*Limit one code per customer and applies only to monthly subscription plans. Must be redeemed at http://www.join-real.com.

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  • Kseniya Sovenko

    A former pro ballroom dancer, Kseniya began her fitness journey at age 5. Over the years, she’s supplemented her training with everything in the boutique fitness scene—from vigorous Bikram Yoga and Pilates reformer classes to weekly HIIT, Metcon, and Tabata workouts, Muay Thai, strength training, and more. Kseniya also graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in journalism and sociology.

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