A Healthy Balance: Sports and Body-Image

The relationship between sports and body image—for both females and males—can be a complicated one

Healthy Balance

If someone asked you to describe your body in five words or less, what would you say? What words come to mind? Are they mostly positive words like strong or fast? Or, do negative things like too big or too small come to mind? The words you choose may tell you something about your body image. Body image is a term that describes how you feel about your body and how you see yourself when you look in the mirror. People with a positive body image feel proud, confident and comfortable in their bodies and have a realistic perception of how their bodies look. People with a negative body image may feel self-conscious, awkward or uncomfortable in their bodies or may think their bodies look different than they actually do.

Unfortunately, examples of negative body image are not hard to come by. Do you know a girl who complains about being “so fat” despite actually being thin? Or, have you met an already muscular guy who works out excessively because he thinks he needs to “get bigger”? Although everyone has a bad body image day from time to time, worrying about your body every day is not healthy. People who have a negative body image often spend way too much time obsessing about things like calories, exercise, and weight and are also more likely to suffer from eating disorders, depression, and low self esteem.

For many people, playing sports is the best medicine for a negative body image. Challenging yourself and accomplishing goals are great body image boosters. The relationship between sports and body image is a complicated one, though. People who participate in sports usually have a more positive body image than those who do not, but this is not true for all athletes. Studies of athletes have found that some male athletes believe they aren’t muscular enough and that many female athletes want to lose weight.

Because an athlete’s body is the key to success and performance, it is not uncommon for athletes to get preoccupied with the idea of making it “perfect”. The qualities that may make someone a good athlete (like competitiveness and drive to succeed) may also make them more likely to take things to an extreme. Athletes may also get added pressure from coaches, parents, or the media to get more fit or to lose weight. If you’ve read a fashion or fitness magazine lately, you know that they don’t usually show normal or realistic body types and research shows that seeing these unrealistic images can worsen a person’s self esteem and lead to poor body image. Next time you see a picture of a man with excessively defined muscles or a woman who is dangerously thin, remind yourself that these images have been retouched and these body types are unattainable.

How you fuel and train your body can impact your body image. Beware of any health advice that promotes extreme eating and exercise practices. Being an athlete takes discipline and commitment, but any eating or exercise plan that completely takes over your life or leaves you feeling exhausted and depleted is not healthy. The weight or body type that many athletes strive for may not be the best for performance, so try to avoid setting goals that are associated with being a certain size or weight. It is important to challenge yourself when you train, but don’t go overboard. Listen to your body and know your limits. Make sure you choose activities you genuinely like to do. If you aren’t having fun when you are playing your sport, it may be time to take a break. Avoid any exercise that you don’t enjoy, especially if you only do it to change your body (to bulk up, get toned, or lose weight).

In an appearance-focused and fitness-obsessed society like ours, it is no wonder that some athletes spend more time worrying about their bodies than they should. Remember that no matter what you look like, it is not OK to hate your body and you don’t need to change the way you look to feel good about yourself. The “cure” for a negative body image is not changing your body, it is changing your mind. The trick is to change the way you see your body and how you think about yourself. Having a healthy body image may not be as difficult to achieve as it seems. It is a lot more work to hate your body than it is to accept it.

Body Positive Tips

#1 Be yourself Keep in mind that your body is just one part of who you are. It’s your personality, skills, talents, values and other qualities that make you you. No matter what shape or size your body is, it is the only one you will ever have and it deserves your acceptance.

#2 Be realistic While taking care of your body through proper training and nutrition is important for athletes, don’t go overboard. Set goals that are skill-based (ball control, footwork, flexibility, endurance, etc.) instead of those that are appearance-based.

#3 Be positive If you find yourself making negative comments about your body, tell yourself to stop. Ridicule is never motivating. Compliment yourself on attributes that have nothing to do with the way you look.

By Kendrin Sonneville, ScD, RD

Originally published in January 2011

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