If your self-esteem is in the dumps, you owe it to yourself to lift it up. After all, learning how to build self-esteem will only make you a happier, healthier person.
Luckily, improving self-esteem isn’t rocket science. In fact, focusing on just one key habit can help propel you along the path to high self-esteem.
We’re talking about exercise.
You probably already know that exercise can help reduce your risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, sharpen your brain, and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Now, you can add “boost self-esteem” to its list of perks.
So, how does exercise improve self-esteem? Let’s explore.
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
Where to begin…
In the Imperfection Economy, which promotes looking good over feeling good, people are taught to chase physical perfection.
Or, at least, what society considers perfection.
While there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing how you look or striving for self-improvement, the standards are often so unrealistic that failure is inevitable.
And no one likes to fail. Especially when you’re working toward a goal to improve yourself.
Failing to meet a goal (hello, New Year’s resolutions!) can be a punch to the gut where self-esteem is concerned.
Physical Signs of Low Self-Esteem
It’s not all in your head. Low self-esteem also affects how you show up in the world, or how you act and carry yourself.
“People with low self-esteem may engage in behaviors that are intended to draw attention away from themselves, such as slouching, avoiding eye contact, and hunching over,” says Carolina Estevez, PsyD, a licensed psychologist with Infinite Recovery.
Other potential signs of low self-esteem, Dr. Estevez says, include:
How Does Exercise Improve Self-Esteem?
If you’re looking to build self-esteem, start by creating a fitness routine you enjoy.
“Exercise has the ability to drastically improve your self-esteem,” says Cynthia Shaw, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in self-esteem and identity development.
It works in a few key ways.
First, exercise stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin, “which are neurotransmitters that influence feelings of happiness, motivation, and learning,” Dr. Estevez says.
As dopamine and serotonin rise, so do feelings of positivity. Over time, this can have a lasting effect on mental health.
A 2022 meta-analysis found that people who did the equivalent of an hour and 15 minutes of brisk walking per week had an 18 percent lower risk of depression than non-exercisers.
Exercise is also an effective distraction from daily worries, helping to relieve stress.
As stress and self-esteem are often intertwined, any activity that reduces stress will likely improve self-esteem, argue the authors of a 2016 review.
Sense of accomplishment
The ego lift you get as you become more physically fit also works wonders for your self-image.
Think about it: Something you once struggled to do is now effortless (or close to it). Wouldn’t that make you feel more self-confident?
Before long, the benefits of exercise to your self-esteem start to creep into other areas of your life.
“When we feel good about ourselves, this also improves our ability to take social risks, leading to a larger social network and the opportunity for social connection,” Dr. Shaw says.
This only creates more self-confidence and overall wellness, she notes.
However, just remember: There are no guarantees when it comes to improving self-esteem.
“Exercise can be a powerful tool, but ultimately, it’s up to the individual to make positive changes and work toward higher levels of self-acceptance,” Dr. Estevez says.
6 Self-Esteem Activities to Give You a Boost
You’ll likely see better self-esteem results from exercise if you choose activities you enjoy and focus on the positive feelings they bring you.
That said, here are six of the best ways you can work out to bolster your self-esteem.
It doesn’t get much better than old-school running.
Among its many benefits, running releases substances called endocannabinoids into the bloodstream and brain, which helps reduce anxiety and promote calm, notes Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Moreover, a 2018 study found that running had a greater impact on mood and energy levels than meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, or progressive relaxation.
Walking is a great way to boost self-esteem, because it gives you time to clear your mind and reflect on your day, Dr. Estevez says.
For added perks, take your walk outdoors: A 2016 study found that people who spend more time in green spaces enjoy healthier blood pressure and better moods compared with their cooped-up counterparts.
Yoga is an excellent option for elevating your mood.
“Yoga helps connect body and mind, calming the nervous system and releasing any emotional tension that may be stored in our bodies,” Dr. Estevez says.
Plus, research shows that performing open, expansive yoga postures increases energy and self-esteem.
And the best part? These positive effects were seen after only two minutes of practice.
Research reveals that dance can decrease anxiety and boost self-esteem and psychological well-being.
So whether you groove to the rhythm in your living room or bust a move in a hip-hop class, dancing is a great way to blow off steam and reconnect with yourself.
5. Group fitness
“Some of the best forms of exercise to boost self-esteem are activities that involve movement and interaction with others,” Dr. Estevez says.
Think: group fitness and dance classes, running clubs, or team sports.
“These types of activities provide an opportunity to learn something new while also developing relationships with like-minded people,” Dr. Estevez says.
6. Strength training
Research shows that physical strength and mental strength go hand-in-hand.
A 2015 study comparing the psychological effects of aerobic exercise and resistance training found that obese adolescents who lifted weights for four weeks experienced significantly greater self-esteem than non-exercising or aerobic training-only peers.
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