Exercising for health vs appearance

Exercising for health vs appearance

There are a whole host of reasons why people choose to get involved in exercise. Some may opt to train for appearance, whereas for others health or sporting performance may be the over-riding factor. A study published in last year in Eating Behaviours (1) which looked at these differences caught our eye recently. The study aimed to determine the prevalence and correlates of eating for either health or shape/weight-related reasons.

The study involved 301 participants (53.5% males) completing questionnaires assessing eating behaviours, self-esteem, affect and attitudes toward exercise. Just under half (47.5%) of the participants reported weight and shape as the reasons behind exercise, with 31.9% citing health reasons as their prime motivator. The remaining participants either stated other reasons (18.3%) or did not report their reasons for undertaking exercise (2.3%). The groups did not differ in terms of age, gender and BMI.



Interestingly, participants in the weight and shape reasons group were significantly more likely to have a binge-eating episode and to report excessive exercising. Over 27% of participants in the weight and shape reasons group reported a binge-eating episode over the past four weeks, whereas only 10% from the health reasons group reported this. Worryingly, participants from the weight and shape group also reported a higher frequency of excessive exercise (16.1% compared with 4.8%) and scored higher marks on the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire, although they were no significant differences found in reports of self-induced vomiting.

The authors concluded that there is an interesting relationship between psychological variables and eating disturbance found in people with different reasons for exercising. They also warned that exercising with weight or shape reasons as the prime motivator may be detrimental to health in certain cases.



Our Take

Whilst it comes as little surprise to see weight and shape proving more popular than health reasons when it comes to exercise motivation, it was interesting to see that gender did not play a significant part in determining exercise motives. The findings from the study do seem to support the suggestion that there may be a relationship between exercising for weight/shape reasons and eating disturbances, as seen in other studies (2, 3, 4, 5). The group exercising for weight and shape reasons also experienced a higher positive affective level after exercising and also reported a higher impact of weight gain on expected self-esteem domains.

It was somewhat concerning to see that the desire to weigh less predicted eating disturbance in both groups, especially given that the majority of participants fell within the “normal weight” category. This finding may add some weight to other studies which associate obesity with development of bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders, although in this case no significant differences in self-induced vomiting or laxative use were seen between groups.

The study does offer some insight in to the differences between those who exercise for different motivational factors, however we must examine the methodological approach before we draw conclusions. The study used a series of questionnaires, each with varying degrees of error, but perhaps even more importantly, the issue of under-reporting is likely to be involved here. Numerous studies have reported that prevalence of under-reporting when it comes to both eating and exercise behaviours so the results do need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Although the differences found in this study do make for good reading, we would particularly like to see further studies in this area to help us shape stronger conclusions.


Author: Hassan Muzaffar



1. Gonçalves, S and Rui Gomes, A. (2012) Exercising for weight and shape reasons vs. health control reasons: The impact on eating disturbance and psychological functioning. Eating Behaviours, Apr;13(2):127-30.

2. Furnham, A., Badmin, N., & Seade, I. (2002) Body image dissatisfaction: Gender differences in eating attitudes, self-esteem and reasons for exercise. The Journal of Psychology, 136, 581–596.

3. Hubbard, S., Gray, J. J., & Parker, S. (1998) Differences among women who exercise for “food related” and “non-food related reasons”. European Eating Disorders Review, 6(4), 255–265.

4. Mond, J. M., Hay, P. J., Rodgers, B., Mond, J. M., Hay, P. J., Rodgers, B., et al. (2005) Assessing quality of life in eating disorder patients. Quality of Life Research, 14, 171–178.

5. Strelan, P., Mehaffey, S. J., & Tiggermann, M. (2003) Self-objectification and esteem in young women: The mediating role of exercise. Sex Roles, 48, 89–95

© 2012, Hassan Muzaffar. All rights reserved.