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Body Dissatisfaction Can Lead to Excessive Exercise, Dieting and Eating Disorders

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www.ProHealth.com • May 30, 2003


Signs of poor body image including strict dieting to conform to unrealistic body shapes and sizes, rates of eating disorders, and excessive levels of exercise indicate growing numbers of people are struggling with their appearance, according to body image expert Michele S. Olson, Ph.D. In an address to health and fitness professionals at the seventh-annual American Council of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition in Reno, Olson said poor body image is reaching crisis levels, and impacting the health of women, men, and alarmingly, children.

Boys and girls as young as fourth graders are counting calories and beginning diets. More than 40 percent of adult women are dieting at any one time, and increasing rates of adult men are expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies. In fact, men with healthy and fit bodies are now displaying a relatively new disorder called "body dysmorphia," a disorder characterized by an inordinate preoccupation and dissatisfaction with body size and muscularity. These reports demonstrate dangerous trends leading men, women and children to extreme and oftentimes unhealthy lengths to change or alter their appearance.

Body image is a combination of how one's body feels to them and the person's perception of their body, including the psychological attitudes and judgments one has assigned to their physique. People with poor body image may make many maladaptive changes based on these ideas, which may result in the desire to have surgery, undertake strict diets, engage in extreme levels of exercise, and even adopt eating disorders to change or alter their appearance.

"Exercise can play a very strong role in changing body image," says Olson. "For some, exercise may enhance the way a person perceives their body. However, others may begin to exercise to excessive levels in order to attain the 'impossible,' which actually compounds the problem and can lead to other health concerns such as injuries and chronic fatigue, and menstrual irregularities."

Experts have encouraged the public to exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes a day on most days of the week, pointing out the numerous health benefits that can be gained with moderate amounts of exercise. Focusing on the quantity of exercise to change or alter one's appearance may foster obsessions with weight control, promote an addiction to excessive exercise, lower self-worth and place one at a high risk for developing an eating disorder.

Olson encourages people to be "perfectly real." This entails becoming sophisticated about the manipulations of images in the media, such as models and celebrities, some of whom are dangerously thin but celebrated for their bodies. Parents and healthcare providers, including personal trainers, should promote authentic images of fitness and body types and should celebrate their own bodies as positive examples. "A fitness expert may not have a pencil thin figure or the most perfect muscles," says Olson. "However, a fitness leader has stamina, strength, and good flexibility. This is what fitness leaders can promote as a 'good' body."

Olson advocates taking fitness routines away from mirrors and focusing more on the "feelings" of exercise. "Exercise is not just physical. It is mental, emotional and social. More emphasis should be placed on feeling good, feeling less stress and enjoying the fitness setting," she says.

Parents also play a serious and important role in a child's body image. Olson says parents should affirm concerns that a child may express about his/her body and show appreciation for, and avoid negative statements about, their own bodies. Parents should never comment negatively about a child's body. Also, Olson recommends parents show children examples of various body types in newspapers and on television to expand their frame of reference, such as astronauts, popular authors or other people who are not known solely for their bodies.



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