Sweat is a river that runs through your soul
Why exercise makes you feel so good
By Dr Laura Hart
I was walking past a dance studio the other day and saw an advertising poster with an image of a woman working out hard, perspiration dripping down her face, concentrating on her squat. It had a caption that read Sweat is a river that runs through the soul. And it hit me. That is exactly the kind of mindset that allows me to enjoy exercise. When I think about how hard I’m working, how strong I’m getting, how pushing my body makes me feel alive and powerful, that’s when it’s worth it!
A recent study surveyed how women feel about themselves before and after exercise. Researchers found that when women report ‘feeling thinner’ after exercise, their body image improves more. The outcomes of the study were reported in the media as good for women (wanna feel skinny? Simple! Just do 30 min exercise!) but this reporting missed another important finding of the research. Women who reported feeling ‘stronger’ also had positive body image outcomes.
I suspect that when women reported ‘feeling thinner’, what they actually meant was they were feeling ‘better’ or ‘healthier’. Feeling good about themselves. Which unfortunately in today’s world is so often inextricably linked to our weight. Remember the successful Endangered Bodies campaign #fatisnotafeeling to have Facebook remove their fat emoji?
That sense of feeling good in your body, better about yourself – that boost you get while exercising – should be absolutely irrelevant to our weight. It not about skinny. It’s about the soul.
The idea that exercise improves how we feel about our bodies is not a new one. A meta-analysis, which pools together all the results from numerous studies to explain what the literature is saying overall, in 2009 reported that research consistently finds regular exercise leads to better trait body image, or feeling more positive about your body over long periods of time. A single bout of 30 mins exercise can also help you feel momentarily better too, by improving your state body image.
But what is important to think about is the why in exercise. Although exercise has the benefit of making us feel a bit better about our bodies, many of us are still motivated to move by a lusting to lose weight, by feeling ashamed of our shape. But what if we were motivated by the desire to feel strong rather than skinny?
If our motivation to exercise is to drop weight and change shape, the positive effects on our mood are likely to last only as long as those lovely hormones coursing through our veins post-workout. As soon as they are gone, we are back to the realisation that our weight hasn’t changed much and our shape is stubbornly similar. If the goal is to change the body - and this happens very slowly, if at all - the psychological result post-work may be a sense of failure, or still being far from the finish line.
But imagine the psychological result post workout if the goal was to simply feel strong! To feel healthy; to have created a river of sweat that came from your soul. Chances are the positive effects on our body image would be dramatically enhanced and any sense of failure kicked to the curb, if we were focussed on exercising simply for the health and psychological benefits, rather than any impact on our appearance. So instead of focussing on feeling skinny, losing weight or changing shape – perhaps consider the more simple things in life next time you throw on the sneakers – I’m doing this for me, to feel good.
Dr Laura Hart is a co-founder of Body Confident Mums, and a researcher at La Trobe and Melbourne Universities.