It’s Mental Health Week 2019 (13th-19th May) and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is taking a close look at body image, the term used to describe how we think and feel about our bodies.
ONE: Because mental health (MH) problems are still not adequately addressed, as the stats below will show. Calling out our cultural and personal dysfunctions is clearly still very necessary if we want to improve our mental health.
TWO: An odd topic for a physio to discuss? Not these days. Physical and mental health are entwined and awareness (and occurrence?) of MH issues is growing. Therefore it’s vital that health professionals and indeed all of us are up-to-date on this subject. Plus I know a little about the role that exercise can play in helping make body image more positive….
It largely boils down to:
and partly to:
If your parents look like shot putters and have the strength to match, you will likely have inherited some of their body characteristics. If you come from a family of tall and willowy types then you probably have a similar set of genes to work with. Couple this with your age, upbringing, disabilities, occupation, what you feed yourself and how and how often you break into a sweat and you can likely draw a straight line from all of these factors to the body that you now have.
We are all intimately aware of our own body; it’s strengths and wonders, idiosyncrasies and limitations. But for all its amazingness, our collective tendency to negatively view the way we look is widespread and rising:
Body dissatisfaction is on the rise: 79% of 11–16-year-olds in the UK said how they look is important to them and 52% often worry about how they look. A 2019 study found that just over one third of adults said they had ever felt anxious or depressed because of their body image.
Higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.
Body satisfaction and appreciation has been linked to better overall wellbeing and fewer unhealthy dieting behaviours.
The reasons for this are myriad and complex. History and the resultant culture, capitalism and education have a lot to answer for. These feed the information that we receive from a brain-washable age from our families, friends, the (social) media and help form our individual thoughts and beliefs.
we need to ignite a national conversation about how we can be kinder to our bodies, to guard against the negative individual, family and cultural influences and thus enabling us to be both physically and mentally healthier.
They have four recommendations for improving our and our society’s perception of body image. Three of these are not within our direct control:
But the fourth is and this is what I am very briefly touching on today:
We can’t detract from the responsibility that we have towards looking after ourselves. Only one person is going to look after number one! I think most people inherently know that the ‘ideal’ images foisted on us by the outside world are often ridiculous so self-awareness of how we view ourselves is important. Our reactions to public images and information, how we talk about ourselves and view others and the example we provide are all critical.
The physical reflection of this mental self-awareness is our activity levels. It’s now widely accepted that activity and exercise have a beneficial effect on our mental health. And in a very cool little study, exercise has been shown to specifically improve body image via improved self-perception. HOW AMAZING IS THIS?! Getting a bit warm and sweaty improves how you feel about yourself and your outward appearance. Maybe I need to get out more but I get a real kick out of the fact that as a Physiotherapist, enabling someone to exercise at all, better or more is likely to improve their mental view of themselves and the world around them.
I’m not going to suggest specific exercises today. I’m just going to encourage you, for the many mental and physical benefits offered, to MOVE MORE (assuming that you could do with moving more (nugget: most of us could)). How to move more? In whatever way you fancy. Have a think. Start small. Build up gradually. Find comradeship and motivation by doing it with a friend or in a group. Try new things.
Be disciplined and make it a part of your day, week and life, in the same way that you allocate time to cooking tea, watching TV or scrolling through social media. Building good physical and mental health can’t be a fad or a phase; it’s a commitment to treating yourself better and being healthier and happier as a result.
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