Katherine Appleton reports that people's body image improves after just two weeks of moderate exercise, even though no physical change has yet materialised. The finding suggests a focus on body image changes could help novice exercisers enjoy early rewards during the early stages of a new programme.
Appleton recruited 34 people (16 men) to take part, all of whom led sedentary lifestyles prior to the study. The effects of two two-week programmes were compared. One involved 3 sessions of 40 minutes reading in a gym per week; the other involved the same time spent exercising in a gym at moderate intensity (getting sweaty and out of breath). Some participants did the reading fortnight first, others did the exercise fortnight first. There was a two-week gap between the intervention fortnights.
The participants filled out body image questionnaires and had their body weight and shape measured at the start and end of the exercise and reading fortnights (the results were hidden from them). The key result is that neither two weeks' exercise or reading made any difference to body weight and shape, but a fortnight of thrice weekly exercise did improve the participants' perceptions of their body. This was true for men and women.
Specifically, despite the lack of any objective change, both men and women reported feeling more satisfied with their looks; feeling more fit, toned and active; healthier; and happier with specific parts of their body (paradoxically, fat anxiety and weight vigilance did not change). In contrast, body image satisfaction dipped slightly after the reading fortnight.
Appleton believes this is the first time body image effects such as this have been documented in the absence of any physical changes. She said this suggests "a focus on body image [rather than other goals] ... may be more rewarding for those embarking on an exercise programme," although she stressed that this needs to be tested. It's a complex issue, she explained, because people can vary in their body image ideals, and in some cases an excess focus on body image can backfire, especially if exercise newbies start comparing themselves to trim regulars at the gym.
There are also some issues with the study methodology. The sample was small and the researcher can't be 100 per cent sure that the participants didn't exercise outside of the allotted gym time (although this wouldn't undermine the main finding of body image change in the absence of physical change). More problematic are the potential effects of researcher contact, and the possibility the participants were giving the answers they thought were expected of them after the exercise fortnight, especially as they were told the study was about the effects of exercise on "various body-related parameters."
Appleton, K. (2012). 6 x 40 mins exercise improves body image, even though body weight and shape do not change. Journal of Health Psychology, 18 (1), 110-120 DOI: 10.1177/1359105311434756
Is the benefit of exercise a placebo effect?
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.