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A Little Goes A Long Way: Any Amount of Exercise Improves Body Image

By L. K. Regan

Do you ever feel like there's no point in working out unless you are going to get that perfect, ripped body? Well, a new study out of the University of Florida suggests that kind of thinking couldn't be more wrong. Even if you achieve none of the usual workout goals—losing weight, getting stronger, increasing endurance—the simple fact of exercising will make you feel at least as good about your body as those buff guys at the gym feel about theirs. Makes the weight room look a little more inviting, doesn't it?

The study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Health Psychology, was conducted by a University of Florida psychologist and a graduate student. Their method was simple: review the results of all studies on the effects of exercise on body-image conducted before June of 2008. They reviewed 57 studies in all, looking at the impact of different degrees of exercise on self-image. Explained Heather Hausenblas, an exercise psychologist and the study's lead author, "People who say they have high body dissatisfaction tend to exercise the least, so we wanted to take it a step further and see whether exercise causes people's body image to improve."

To establish a baseline, Hausenblas notes that the American College of Sports Medicine advises exercising at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week in order to achieve full health benefits—but the researchers found that people who worked out this much had no better opinion of their bodies than people who worked out less. "We would have thought," said Hausenblas, "that people exercising this amount would have felt better about their bodies than those who did not work out as much." But in fact, the publications reviewed in the study consistently found that, while exercise in general gives a body-image boost, working out more doesn't give additional improvements in self-perception.

In a further surprising result, the researchers found a gender gap—but not the one they were expecting. Women received larger benefits to body-image from exercise than did men, but only slightly so. The researchers were expecting this gap to be large, and were surprised. Thinking through the result, Hausenblas said, "We believed the gap would be much bigger, but what could be coming into play is the rise of body image issues among men," she said. "We're seeing more media portrayals of the ideal physique for men rather than the overriding emphasis on women we did in the past."

According to Hausenblas, some 60 percent of adults in national studies say that they don't like the look of their bodies. It seems that the remedy for that statistic is still the same: hit the gym—even if you only do a little.