When was the last time you scrolled through social media looking for some fitness inspiration, only to end up with a serious case of bad body image? If it happened recently, you’re not alone. According to new research, your confidence could benefit from something other than #fitspo, and in just 30 minutes, you could feel stronger, leaner, and a whole lot better about your body.
A paper recently published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that a half-hour bout of exercise makes women feel fitter and thinner, and the positive effects last beyond that 30-minute window. While this may be big news to some, health experts have long known the feel-good benefits of a good workout.
“Exercise is the only way to temporarily release the same feel-good chemicals—like serotonin and epinephrine—that antidepressant medications help with,” says Shilpi Agarwal, a New York-based family medicine and integrative and holistic medicine physician. “You can naturally boost your mood and it helps you sleep better—you get to sleep faster and stay asleep longer.”
For the new study, researchers sized up the body image perceptions of women who did 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity and compared those findings to the perceptions of women who sat and read. The results indicated that the exercisers experienced big improvements in their body image compared to the readers, and their boosted body confidence lasted at least 20 minutes post-workout (it may have lasted longer, but the researchers didn’t test beyond that time period). And while the mood-enhancing perks Agarwal referenced are certainly a positive side effect of exercise, the researchers say their exercisers’ improved perceptions were actually linked to participants feeling stronger and thinner; not just happier.
“It seems that the exercise is changing how they think specifically about their bodies,” says lead author Kathleen A. Martin Ginis Ph.D., a professor in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia. “We suspect that the exercise may have attenuated some of the negative thoughts that women often have toward their bodies.”
Whatever the reason for their improved body confidence, experts continue to advocate for exercise as an all-around health booster. “We know that movement helps with mood, depression, anxiety, sleep, libido, digestion, immunity, and on and on,” says Victoria Albina, a New York-based integrative medicine nurse practitioner and life coach. “But the first step can be the hardest, especially when body image is an issue.” Albina says it’s important to recognize that you may be carrying a lifetime of body shaming and guilt, and potentially even trauma, with you as you head to the gym, so be kind to yourself as you start out and begin to set goals. “Meeting ourselves where we’re at is a really vital first step,” she says.
This isn’t the first time researchers have documented a big boost in positive body image thanks to exercise. A 2006 meta-analysis of 121 studies on the impact of exercise on body image found the same significant differences: exercisers had a more positive body image overall compared to non-exercisers, and often showed significantly increased body confidence post-workout.
So to reap all these great benefits, what kind of sweat session is best? “There’s only one ideal exercise for everyone on the planet,” says Albina, “and that is the exercise that makes that person feel good in their body.” For you, that could be walking, for others Crossfit, she says. “And for some, that’s holding a plank for 10 seconds a day and building up to a minute. But the point is to get moving.”
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.