It may be popularly thought that to get a better body image through exercise means to get a better body.

As a result, people will pound the pavement, or endure hours of treadmill, stair-climbing and weight routines, all to obtain a body shape that will make them happy.

Every step, cycle of the pedal or heave of the dumbbell can become a punishment for not having the ideal body. Every workout and annual renewal of gym membership therefore reinforces the notion that your appearance is unacceptable.

The central belief here is that body image equals body, or that the only happy people in the world are those who look like the ideal. People start to think they’ll be happier if they lose five kilos or reduce their waist size or add muscle bulk to their upper body.

For some people this thinking validates beliefs that your appearance is your most important quality, that other people value you solely because of your looks, or that everyone obsessively notices the part of your body you dislike.

Ultimately, exercise becomes part of the cycle of negative body image.

However, with a shift in thinking, the cycle can be broken. People of all shapes and sizes have bad body image and people of all shapes and sizes can have good body image.

Consider how appearance-obsessed and diet-vigilant professional models need to be, how they are judged solely on their looks to book jobs and the fierce competitiveness between models to make a living.

On the other hand, think of the comfort in which men with bulging waists, balding heads and hairy backs wear their Speedos at the local pool. Free from thoughts of shame, just enjoying the sun and the pool.

How can exercise help you improve your body image irrespective of your body size or shape? There is more to your body than its appearance or how it compares to the idealised images in the media. Our body is not just aesthetic, it is also functional. It can do many wonderful things.

Set workout goals that celebrate the mastery the body can achieve. Aim to run a certain distance or lift a certain weight (with good technique), learn to swim butterfly or indoor rock-climbing.

Research shows that mastery goals can build a positive body image, and body changes can happen incidentally to achieving performance goals.

Additionally, celebrate all the sensations the body provides us. Enjoy the sensation of feeling fitter or stronger, of how your energy levels improve and stress is reduced by regular exercise.

Improved fitness, strength and posture can also improve body image and help you become healthier and happier at any shape.

By GRANT O’SULLIVAN

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