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Exercise and Self Esteem

Written by Karl Perera BA, MA, DipLC
Updated: September 23rd, 2020

healthy woman jumping with confidence

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According to Helen Hausenblas of the University of Florida, as many as 60% of American adults may be unhappy with their physical appearance and body shape. Exercise and fitness programs seem to offer a way to improve how we look and feel and so improve our self esteem. How effective is exercise in improving self esteem?

Exercise can positively improve self esteem, and this has been shown in studies on children and adults. Self esteem is an important factor in well-being and exercise can also improve body image, alleviate stress and help make us feel happier.

Does Exercise Improve Self Esteem?

This study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that exercise can have a positive effect on self esteem. In particular, the study looked at young people between the ages of 3 to 20 years and also considered past research.

Another study by Elavsky in 2010 shows that continued exercise can boost self esteem and body image in middle-aged women. Elavsky also believes that, based on research, exercise benefits women in menopause and improves mental health.

It is also interesting to look at the effects of exercise on the self esteem of older people. That is exactly what this study did, by assessing whether a DVD-based exercise program can have a positive effect on elderly people’s self esteem.

“Physical activity is a low cost, lifestyle behavior that has consistently been associated with physical and mental health improvements in an older adult population.”

Awick, Ehlers, Fanning, Phillips, Wójcicki, Mackenzie, Motl, & McAuley. (2017).

This is very positive because it means it is never too late to start exercising, to build toward your goal of improved self image.

The connection between exercise and self esteem has been shown to be valid in many other studies. It is safe to say that exercising more can have a very real effect on our self esteem, body image and confidence.

The Benefits of Exercise

There are many benefits of exercise which can contribute to general well-being, improved mental health and a boost in self esteem.

Sudden, seasonal, bursts of energy towards getting in shape come and go with the ever-changing weather. What is important is that maintaining some form of physical exercising, beyond your every day cycle, helps reduce anxiety while building emotional strength. How? Physical strain weakens pent-up, nervous, energy; that would otherwise fester and brew harshly within you. One theory is that endorphins, a chemical the pituitary gland produced during vigorous exercise improves your mood.


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It should never bother you to take the relatively minor steps necessary to improve your health; especially when doing so can only upgrade your self esteem along the way. Even people in their eighties and nineties who have not been active for many years can strengthen bones, muscle, heart and lung capacity when they maintain a regular exercise program. You don’t have to exercise every day to achieve goals for good health. Initially, aim for every other day.

Many believe that working out relieves stress, and I have experienced this too. It is a great way to get rid of excess energy that sometimes gets bottled up inside us.

Exercising may also help you at work and increase your energy levels in addition to helping you to feel and look better. In fact, there doesn’t seem any downside to exercise.

A Word of Caution and Health Concerns

For most, exercise is beneficial but if you have health concerns please get the advice of a doctor before starting an exercise program. If you experience dizziness, chest pain, nausea or shortness of breath stop exercising immediately and call a doctor.

What are the Best Ways to Exercise to Build Self Esteem?

  • Exercise with a friend. If you can make your exercising social by working out with a positive person you are close to this will increase the power to boost your self esteem. It is also great for your motivation as you can encourage each other and set goals together.
  • Get a personal trainer who will motivate and keep you focused on your exercise goals. The support and help you get from a trainer can really help you with your self confidence and ensure that you are getting the most from your exercise routine.
  • As little as two sessions per week of exercise can make us happier, more confident and less stressed (Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Gallup News), which can promote improved self esteem.
  • Make exercise more interesting and less boring by joining classes or taking part in sports or walking with friends. The social element is so good for your positivity and self esteem.
  • Yoga is another form of gentler exercise which can help reduce stress and calm your mind, all of which help to put you in a more positive frame of mind and feel better about yourself.
  • Exercise can be a great way to recover from illness and restore lost self esteem and confidence. For example, this study, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, found that breast cancer patients can improve self esteem through exercise. The reason was mainly due to improved feelings of being physically able.

It’s probably not a good idea to do really intense workout programs if you’re looking to reduce stress and improve your level of self esteem. Most of the research mentioned suggests that moderate exercise is best for this.

How Quickly Can You Build Self esteem with exercise?

The answer to this is not simple. Exercise will boost your self esteem almost immediately in the short term, but only regular and consistent exercise over a few weeks and even longer will make a more lasting difference in your self esteem and confidence.

5 minutes into your workout you may start to feel a boost in your mood, but according to this study in the International Journal of Sports Psychology, it may take as long as six months for this to translate into a more permanent shift in mood and self esteem level

Sources

  • Alfermann, D., & Stoll, O. (2000). Effects of physical exercise on self-concept and well-being. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 31(1), 47–65.
  • Awick, E., Ehlers, D., Fanning, J., Phillips, S., Wójcicki, T., Mackenzie, M., Motl, R., & McAuley, E. (2017). Effects of a Home-Based DVD-Delivered Physical Activity Program on Self-Esteem in Older Adults: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 79(1), 71–80. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000358
  • Baldwin, M., & Courneya, K. S. (1997). Exercise and Self-Esteem in Breast Cancer Survivors: An Application of the Exercise and Self-Esteem Model, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology19(4), 347-358. Retrieved Sep 23, 2020, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jsep/19/4/article-p347.xml
  • Ekeland E, Heian F, Hagen KB. (2005). Can exercise improve self esteem in children and young people? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 39:792-798.
  • Elavsky, S. (2010). Longitudinal Examination of the Exercise and Self-Esteem Model in Middle-Aged Women. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32(6), 862–880. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.32.6.862
  • Rath, T. and Harter, J. (2010). Exercise, Sleep and Physical Well-Being. Gallup News. https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/127211/exercise-sleep-physical-wellbeing.aspx

Website Author and Editor Bio

Photo of Karl Perera, MA, DipLC Karl Perera is a fully qualified Life Coach (DipLC), Teacher (MA) and author of Self Esteem Secrets. He has taught at various universities including Durham, Leicester and Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. He has run More-SelfEsteem.com since 1997 and is an expert in Self Esteem and Self Confidence.