Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

body imageAdvanced fitness professionals understand that behind the countless desires to "firm up, tone up and get leaner" is a client with a body image disturbance to a greater or lesser degree. All too common today are fashion and fitness models that are thinner than 98% of American women. With 7 million girls and women and 1 million boys and men struggling with eating disorders, along with 8 out of 10 women unhappy with their reflection, body image and its association with exercise is an important element to consider when meeting a new client. Dissatisfaction with one's body is more of a deterrent to exercise than what you may imagine.

As an exercise behavioral scientist, I suggest trainers look at 4 dimensions of body image:

  1. Perceptual dimension:  How your client "sees" her/himself in the mirror or imagines she/he looks. It's perception, not reality.
  2. Cognitive dimension:  What your client thinks when he/she evaluates his/her body in terms of function and appearance.
  3. Emotional dimension:  Positive and negative feelings your clients have in relation to their body's appearance and function. Do they feel pride or shame?
  4. Behavioral dimension:  Things your client does that reflects negative or positive feelings about their bodies. This could mean clothes they wear, their connection to others in the gym, where they position themselves in a group – each gives a behavioral indication of their perceptions and feelings about their bodies.

Common sense tells us that those with positive body image generally have more positive self-esteem, are likely freer from anxiety and depression, and may well engage in fewer health-damaging behaviors.  Research demonstrates that exercise can lead to notable improvements in body image for women and men. In fact, one study demonstrated that exercise can be as effective as a popular form of personal counseling in improving body image.  Adding the value of improving health and physical fitness would seem to tip the scale in favor of exercise for helping improve body image in many clients.

It would appear that your work as a trainer may well enhance self-efficacy, provide an increased sense of physical functioning and improve physical fitness for those struggling with any or all of the four dimensions of body image disturbance.  In fact, these mechanisms may well explain how exercise and improved body image are related.

Given this understanding of body image, it is wise for fitness professionals to include sensitive questioning about a client's thoughts, feelings and behaviors regarding body image.  What specific worries do they harbor about being in a gym and about beginning an exercise program?  Asking clients if they ever feel "uptight" about their figure or physique especially in the presence of others or are bothered by thoughts that others are evaluating them or feel shy displaying their figure in workout clothing may be too direct of an approach for some. 

Using the "third person" technique may draw out these anxieties.  For example, "Mary (or Bob), I've spoken with a number of clients who feel self-conscious or out of place in this club because of how they think they look compared to others, or what they believe others might be thinking about them. It's not uncommon.  I'd like to discuss any thoughts like these you may have to be sure we successfully overcome any hurdles in your way of becoming more active and living healthier and better."

The focus is always properly on realistic, attainable, specific "can do" goals (SMART), that de-emphasize appearance and its associated language (not "looking good," but "great effort" and "good form"), and at a moderate to high effort.

Interested in learning more? Discover the role exercise plays in recovering from psychological disorders in this online course.

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