Training for the perfect body or training for health and enjoyment1 Opinion
Motivation to exercise is an extremely important area in psychological research. Gaining an understanding of why many people drop out of exercise, and why others are able to maintain involvement in exercise for sustained periods of time is an extremely important topic largely due to the UK and western world experiencing increased levels of cardiovascular diseases due to a lack of exercise and sedentary behaviour. Reports show show that obesity alone costs the UK economy over £5 billion each year, but there also psychological issues linked to the way in which we are motivated to exercise.
Getting the population active is clearly important for the health of the population, and the economy. However engaging in exercise for health related purposes is often not the main motive for individuals. In recent years in the UK and Western world there has been a huge shift in focus towards body image and appearance, with body shape and weight playing a large role in how we see and feel about ourselves. Research has shown that women are often motivated to exercise for these appearance related reasons in order to achieve “the perfect body”, or the thin ideal as it’s known in the world of research, this refers to a certain set of bodily characteristics such as having a small waist, curvy hips, and minimal fat. More recent research is suggesting that men are also becoming more motivated to exercise for appearance purposes, with the male body image ideal, or the muscular ideal explaining that muscle definition, a six pack, and a V-shaped body is the main point of focus for young males when exercising. Statistics that are coming out of appearance and exercise research are quite alarming with 61%-82% of adults reporting to be very dissatisfied with their current body image, and 70%-94% of females wanting to reduce their current body weight, these findings beg the question as to why so many people are unhappy and with their body image… the answer seems to be quite clear. The media’s portrayal of what the male and female body image ideal is can be seen in TV programmes, music videos, and magazines to name a few which have all been linked to body dissatisfaction and weight concerns.
The media has proven to be a key influencing factor in promoting the perfect body and has consistently been shown as a major contributor to reduced self-esteem, social body image anxiety, and lowered body image satisfaction in women and men. There is much research that suggests both men, but more commonly women are indulging in products such as magazines and television advertisements that often depict false or unrealistic body images. The use of airbrushing in magazines and other advertisements promote a body image that simply isn’t attainable to men and women, yet are still highly desirable. This constant pressure to conform to a body image ideal that can often be out of reach, is a key motivator to what drives many individual to take part in exercise and physical activity programmes such as joining a gym. For example Gonçalves & Gomes (2012) found that in a sample of 301 participants, 48% were motivated to exercise for appearance purposes such as weight and shape alterations in order to attain a certain look. However there is a key issue with this approach which can be explained by the Social Comparison Theory, this states that we constantly compare our body to others inorder to measure our success or failure, if individuals are constanly comparing themselves with desirable bodies such as the ones promoted in the media this is highly likely to result in feelings of inadaquecy, low self-esteem, social physique anxiety, and low body image satisfaction. Further research in to the topic reveals many of the coping stratagies for these negative feelings. Kowalski et al (2006) reported that from 398 male and female participants the most commonly reported coping strategies for social physique anxiety when exercising was to avoid exercising all together, with 33.2% of men and 41% of women adopting this approach. Alarming finding from White et al (2005) also found that 50% of new exercisers will drop out of exercising within the first 6 months.
However although women are more likely to drop out of exercise as a coping strategy for appearance related concerns, research explains that men are more likely than women to choose the route of maladaptive behaviours in order to attain a body image ideal. Common examples of maladaptive behaviours are the use of steroids, overtraining, and eating disorders. Men have historically been less concerned with body image when compared to women but with the media promoting a muscular ideal more often in recent times exercising for appearance is on the increase in men. A study by Bardick, Bernes, and Nixon (2006) found that in all male gym users they interviewed steroid use and weight lifting were engaged in purely in order to attain an ideal body image look, this motive was so powerful that social and occupational lives were affected in all of the participants. A second study revealed that many male gym users who were motivated to achieve a muscular body were likely too or already did engage in cycles of obsessive compulsive exercise, which is linked to social physique anxiety.
It is well publicised that exercising has positive effects on both mental and physical well being, and it could be said that if individuals are engaging in physical activity and exercise then this can only be a good thing. More and more research is suggesting that exercising for appearance purposes may actually be a good thing simply because it increases participation in exercise and if people didn’t feel the desire to exercise for the way they look then they may not exercise at all. Rumsey and Harcourt (2004) explain that our appearance concerns can be a useful motivator to exercise and can be considered a good thing. Heinberg, Thompson, Matzon (2001) hypothesized that “body image dissatisfaction is not always a negative process, and instead argue that some degree of dissatisfaction may be helpful and necessary to motivate individuals to engage in healthy behaviours such as exercise. This argument is a valid one as if people are engaging in an exercise programme for whatever motive then they will start to recieve the benefits that come with it, such as lower blood pressure, a decresed likelihood of type II diabetis, and hypertension among many more physical benefits, but exercise is also useful for its psychological benefits such as increased self-esteem, increased body image satisfaction, and lowerbody image anxiety. It has been shown that exercise is a useful treatment for depression and anxiety related dissorders and can be seen as being equally, if not more effective than prescribed medication. However, unfortunately these psychological benefits seems to be cancelled out if the exerciser is strongly motivated to exercise solely for body image and appearance purposes. It would seem that the benefits that one may receive from engaging in exercise become outweighed by the negatives that are experienced by being appearance driven. For example engaging in exercise for appearance purposes has shown to lead to social comparison, as a result of this constant comparison individuals can feel inadequate as success is based on not one’s own health improvements but rather one’s body image in relation to others, if results are not fast enough these constant comparisons can become too much to bare resulting in exercise dropout but also psychological issues such as low self esteem, body image anxiety, and lowered body image satisfaction which outweigh any of the benefits associated with exercise.
In conclusion to the present article it can be argued that it is an individual’s motivation to exercise which often predicts exercise success and failure. It would seem that there are two reasonably strong arguments for both motives for exercising (i.e. appearance or health). Although being high on appearance motivation will lead to early drop out and maladaptive behaviours through social comparison, it does increase the likelihood of exercise up-take by that individual, however if then a motive to improve health and enjoy exercise which is known as a mastery or task orientated approach can be adopted then exercise is likely to be maintained and the use of maladaptive behaviours such as steroid use and eating disorders are decreased which can be considered the most desired outcome.
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About Spencer Vickery
I currently holds a bachelors and masters degree in sport and exercise psychology, this combined with 7 years experience as a professional golfer competing throughout the UK and Europe gives me an almost unrivalled amount of knowledge and understanding about the psychology behind performing under pressure and how the brain works during these pressure situations. I am always happy to answer any questions