The saying “perception is reality” is especially true when it comes to our bodies. The thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves, known as body image, can shape our decisions for better or for worse. It can be a vicious cycle: You feel weak. So you don’t go to the gym. Then you feel lazy — and eventually, you get weaker.
But you can also create virtuous cycles: You feel strong. So you go to the gym and train because you want to maintain and improve your strength. Mix in some protein shakes and a good night’s sleep, and soon, you’re even stronger.
Here’s some good news that might kick off a spin around that virtuous cycle for you. A recent study showed that a single bout of exercise is enough to change your body image for the better. And the session doesn’t even need to be all that long. Researchers found 30 minutes was enough to make a lasting positive impact. (OK, it was actually 38 minutes when you add in the 5-minute warmup and 3-minute cooldown participants did. But still, not a huge amount of time.)
A team of academics at McMaster University in Canada conducted the study, which sought to assess how a single training session affected a person’s self-outlook. And they tested it on a tough crowd: college-aged women (17–23 years old) who had previous body-image concerns. Basically, they looked at a group of people who had a history of feeling not-so-great about their bodies, then examined whether exercise could make a difference.
THE POWER OF ONE WORKOUT SESSION
Participants were divided into two groups of 30 people, who were all outfitted with heart-rate monitors. One was the control group, which after receiving their monitors, simply sat in a comfortable chairs and read magazines.
The other was the test group. Women in this bunch cycled at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity for 30 minutes. How vigorous? The subjects kept their heart rate between 150–160 beats per minute throughout the session, with researchers adjusting the bike’s resistance to ensure testers stayed within the proper zone.
Before and after the session, women in both groups were asked to complete a series of surveys meant to evaluate their self-perceptions of their strength, endurance and body fat, responding to prompts like “Right now I feel that I look…” or “I have too much fat on my body…”
The result? Researchers observed a noticeable and lasting uptick in body image within the test group after the training session. Specifically, those who worked out focused more on their body’s strength, and were less likely to dwell on fat.
The takeaway: While you know you can’t measurably improve your strength or shred body fat in just one workout, you can feel like you did. And that may be just as important.
“[This study] means that we don’t have to wait for the actual physical body to change — something that exercisers have little control over — in order to improve body image,” says Dr. Kathleen Martin Ginis, the professor who led the study. “Rather, we can build elements into exercise bouts that help facilitate improvements in body image — for example, getting women to notice that they feel stronger and more competent by virtue of doing exercise.”
One important thing to note about the study is the participants were already regular exercisers, training three times per week on average. Someone who’s untrained or overweight shouldn’t try to jump right into working out at the same intensity as the women in this study.
“Starting with a 30-minute bout of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity, as we did in this study, will likely be a big challenge for a sedentary woman,” Martin Ginis says. “You wouldn’t take a beginner skier down a black diamond run on their first go. They’ll get to the bottom (if they get there at all) feeling pretty incompetent, silly, banged up or discouraged. It’s the same with exercise.”
Instead of rushing headlong into a hard workout, Martin Ginis recommends newbies set goals within their capabilities that they can feel good about achieving. Then build off of them. And while the current study involved cycling, and Martin Ginis herself is an avid runner, the professor recommends that everybody — especially women — take a closer look at the weight room.
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“Both in my research and anecdotally, I find that women respond very powerfully to strength-training,” Martin Ginis says. “It makes them think about the functionality of their bodies in ways that aerobic training doesn’t. I think that’s because there are more opportunities in a woman’s day-to-day life to actually see that she’s getting stronger (e.g., opening heavy doors, lifting groceries out of the car, picking up a child) than there are other opportunities to see she’s getting aerobically fitter.
“My advice would be to try doing some strength-training, pay attention to the effects on your functional capabilities and then think about how that makes you feel about your body,” Martin Ginis says.