Negative Body Image Leads Some to Excessive Exercise

There are styles of thinking that are commonly related to anxiety and unhappiness. One patterned way of thinking that is identified by therapists who work with cognitions is the all-or-nothing style. It is often part of the negative body-image experience. This way of thinking can lead to a lot of unnecessary distress, but it is also a symptom of feeling overwhelmed. When the mind is faced with too much to deal with, a tactic it uses to conserve energy is to reduce its interpretation of experiences to simple categories: black or white, all or nothing, all bad or all good. In this effort to simplify and manage complex experiences, the mind protects itself in a short-term gain, long-term pain manner. Because life experiences can indeed be complex, we need to be able to tolerate the discomfort of staying open-minded as much as possible. The more we can withstand the discomfort, the more readily we can grow into new understandings, accommodating the complexity into our frame of thinking. This impacts relationships to self and others.

People with negative body image are often throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just like people who complain of low self-esteem, they make global and categorical assessments of their worth. They are not using a logical stance to assess their strengths and areas of challenge. Their minds are locked into an all-good versus all-bad perspective. Instead of thinking of the multitude of pleasures and purposes of the body and of the complexity of the concept of attraction, they decide that they, as a whole, are unappealing. People with extremely poor body image rarely actually look at their whole selves. When they look in the mirror, they visually dissect their image into small parts which they then taint with a negative emotion. Negative feelings overall can impact what we think we are seeing. Perception is influenced by mind and emotion states. What we see can be a trick. If one who is already stressed or sad then looks only at one aspect or one piece of their physical body, the scene is ripe for negative body image. This becomes a very unhealthy habit that perpetuates itself—getting stressed and then over-focusing on one aspect of the body that brings about more negative feelings. This person may believe he or she can control that one area of the body. This sends people into very unpleasant experiences with exercising.

Categorical thinking about the body perpetuates unhealthy attitudes about wellness overall and sabotages efforts to stay fit. Instead of going to work out or enjoy sport or physical activity, the person with negative body image will sometimes resentfully engage in excessive exercise to try to manage the hated parts of the body. This usually fails, as spot-training is often a futile endeavour. Since they cannot reach their all-or-nothing goals, they often become demotivated to work out. A healthy and balanced approach to being fit in mind and body is not about spot-training or sculpting the body. A sustainable and healthy approach is one that allows a person to accept the natural ebb and flow of energy and motivation. Cherishing life, one heads to physical activity with joy, keeping in mind the goal of health, wellness, and balance itself. Self-enhancement through dedication to feeling good keeps a body well. This kind of accepting attitude leads to overall better health and fitness, which contributes greatly to relaxation and strengthened capacity to deal with emotion and stressful challenges.  Ultimately, respecting the body and the whole self, rather than trying to conquer and control it, helps to change stubborn all-or-nothing attitudes. One must humbly surrender to the emotionally provoking complexity of being human, honoring and respecting strengths and vulnerabilities in self and others. After all, life would be very boring if it was truly black and white.

© Copyright 2011 by By Shirley Katz, PhD, RP, CCC, therapist in North York, Ontario. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ron

    Ron

    November 28th, 2011 at 12:01 PM

    So this means someone with body issues actualy has a mental health problem? I think the meaning of this study is that..Let us hope this is wrong because there are many many people out there with body issues and I’m sure women are more susceptible to this kind of a thing.

  • Jane

    Jane

    November 28th, 2011 at 4:00 PM

    But you know that sometimes people with issues like this dedicate too much time to their health, and what they think is being healthy really is causing them to focus on the negative things that they see in themselves and not necessarily the good things that eating right and exercise can bring about. They do all of this and fixate on this for completely the wrong reasons.

  • beth

    beth

    November 28th, 2011 at 11:50 PM

    this isn’t necessarily true! they say almost ALL women are unhappy with their bodies. but do almost all women have this low self-worth feeling? no! it happens with people who are prone to it. to say it is a universal thing is just wrong!

  • N.L

    N.L

    November 29th, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    I feel great when I work out and generally my day is much better when I work out before work.i feel more confident about myself and things tend to move smoothly…Compare this to days when i don’t hit the gym before work-feeling rusty and my temperament is affected too…So yes,exercise and body have a lot to do with how you feel…This is very much apparent in my day-to-day life…

  • Karen Hall

    Karen Hall

    November 29th, 2011 at 12:54 PM

    As a female I know so many of my friends decide how “good” they are by what they had to eat that day or how their clothes feel when they put them on or the number on the bathroom scales. Although I love these girls like sisters, I am so glad that my own parents gave me the self esteem to think much more of myself than what I see in the mirror or the size of my pants.

  • Jacques

    Jacques

    November 30th, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    My body image of self is never going to be dictated by what others think and if I’m overweight and feel good bout myself then thats all I need.I am what I am and have no need to please others.

  • Shirley Katz, Ph.D.

    Shirley Katz, Ph.D.

    February 10th, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    To clarify, this isn’t a “study” but an opinion article based on research and experience in working as a psychotherapist. Any issue that causes distress sufficient enough to get in the way of relationships, career/school, health or other areas of functioning is a “mental health issue”, which means its not “healthy” and can benefit from therapy. Hope that clears things up. Thank you for all your responses.

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