Spring has finally sprung and the budding trees herald an annual ambush of headlines directing us to get ready for summer — swimsuit-ready, bikini-ready, beach-ready. No, popular media does not cause eating disorders, but it does create a reliable seasonal frenzy around body awareness.
For the relative few who suffer from an eating disorder and the many others who report extreme body dissatisfaction (prevalence estimates being 13 to 30 percent of women and 9 to 28 percent of men in a recent U.S. sample), these articles prey on and worsen insecurities. The exterior message is to focus on your exterior, to lose weight, “debloat,” tone or tan. The interior message is that you must be on guard to the minutiae of your physical appearance in order to be healthy, enjoy the summer sun or feel warmly towards yourself.
But science suggests otherwise — that quality of life cannot be reduced to weight or waist size. In fact, hypervigilance about body shape and weight is associated with low mood and unhealthy eating attitudes. This heightened awareness can make it difficult to focus on anything else and encourages distorted perceptions of your body. Positive body image, by contrast, has a positive impact on a variety of health behaviors (e.g., sun protection, cancer screenings, alcohol consumption).
Resisting the mania of media messages about physical fitness while retaining a healthy focus on being your best you this season (and all others) requires serious mental strength training. All strength training comes down to the core, and this is no different. As you get summer-ready this spring, consider some exercises to help shape up the “core” you:
• You might begin by conjuring up a childhood image of summer, one in which the body is being used as a vehicle for exploration, playful activity, or accomplishment. Your vision might be a real memory or imagined, based on your own child, a friend, a favorite summer movie or song. Maybe it’s an image of successfully riding a bike up a steep hill with a grown-up cheering you on, or jumping rope or playing hopscotch with friends, or diving underwater for the first time.
• Then try to retain that image and the way you are thinking about the physical body and its capacities while you imagine being active, feeling strong and healthy, in your adult form this summer. Flex your mental muscles to identify activities that might focus you on discovery and achievement, rather than perfectly toned abs. Walk a new stretch of shoreline. Hike up a nearby mountain. Run a local 5K. Play with others in a dance or yoga class. Rediscover the jump rope or get on that bike again!
If you are at risk to overdo it with exercise, then maintaining variety, flexibility, and limits around the type and amount of activity is critical for your physical and mental wellbeing this summer. If you tend to underdo it with exercise, stay mindful of your motivations for change and distract yourself from the muscle fatigue by focusing on immediate positive reinforcements of activity, like improved mood and energy level.
• If you’re a person who is especially susceptible to behaviors associated with poor body image — for example, spending too much time staring at yourself in the mirror — then try to cleanse yourself of these psychologically toxic habits to get summer-ready. This will involve developing increased awareness of the action and doings reps of some course-correcting exercises to achieve lasting change.
With mirror time, this might be accomplished by replacing disparaging self-talk with more neutral, descriptive language or by practicing saying something positive about yourself (your self, who you are as a person, not your appearance) when you look in the mirror. Eventually, you might find that a moderate amount of time staring at your reflection will make you feel better, not worse, about yourself.
As the temperatures rise this season, aim to let cooler heads prevail by focusing on true summer fitness, physical and mental. You can use this summer to work on the “core” you by starting to ask yourself now, “What will help me strengthen my core self?”
Follow Deborah R. Glasofer, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drglasofer