• Psychology of Movement
    Is exercise improving your self-esteem?
  • Is exercise improving your self-esteem?
  • It’s often said that engaging in physical activity can enhance self-esteem. The Association for Physical Education for example has previously stated that physical activity “improves psychological and mental wellbeing including positive self-esteem”.

    But is this always the case?

    Self-esteem is subjective…

    It relates to how we value and perceive ourselves and is based on our own opinions and beliefs. Your level of self-esteem therefore may not reflect how others perceive you.

    Whilst many studies have shown that physical activity can enhance self-esteem, this is not necessarily the case for all experiences. Some experiences may in fact be detrimental.

    Therefore, it is worth considering for yourself whether the physical activity you are engaged in, or thinking about doing, has the potential to enhance or decrease your self-esteem. Afterall, this can impact how motivated you feel and how likely it is that you will regularly engage in exercise.

    Some areas to consider…

    We tend to be motivated when our competence can be demonstrated. Therefore, if you don’t perceive yourself to be competent in a certain form of exercise, know that it is normal for that to deter you from doing it and can cause increased anxiety and negative emotions.

    To forge a better relationship with physical activity, it can be helpful to seek out types where threats to self-esteem are minimal. This often can be found in non-competitive physical activities. For some this may be doing a workout at home, finding a personal trainer you trust, going to a fitness class or working out with a friend for fun.

    Studies on physical activity and self-esteem have shown that effects are stronger when physical fitness significantly improved, compared to those with no increased fitness. Therefore, it’s worth finding ways to notice the improvements you are making. For example, noting down progress in weight lifted, distance travelled, speed, number or length of sessions or improvements in your technique.

    Self-presentation concerns can impact what physical activity people do. Social physique anxiety can prevent people from engaging in physical activity. For example, some people may avoid exercise where they think they are under the scrutiny of others such as swimming or dance due to concerns about how they look or if they think the type of exercise is not compatible with their image. Self-presentation concerns can also occur due to fears of demonstrating low levels of physical competence. This can often be a significant barrier with people feeling they are ‘not the sporty type’.

    Overall, whilst physical activity can improve self-esteem, it also can undermine it. It’s therefore worth being aware of potential pitfalls and whether any of these are barriers for you. Once you are aware of these, you can seek out forms of physical activity that you find have a positive impact on your self-esteem.

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