A woman smiling while doing exercise outside in a sports bra

How to improve low self-esteem with exercise, according to an expert

Posted by for Wellbeing

The link between your body and brain health is undeniable – so here’s how to use movement to feel better about yourself. 

When we’re lacking confidence, we tell ourselves that we’re silly, don’t belong somewhere or aren’t good enough at something. Changing the way we think plays a big part in improving our self-esteem, but to seriously boost our confidence, we can’t afford to only be ‘brain-centric’.

At least, that’s according to science journalist Caroline Williams, author of Move! The New Science Of Body Over Mind. She says that the things we do with our physical body have a huge impact on our mind and self-esteem.

“For a lot of my career, I was looking at the brain – how and why we think the way we do, how and why we feel the way we do and what we can do to make changes to that. It was brain, brain, brain and that was the end of the story,” she tells Stylist

“But then it occurred to me that my mind works best when my body is moving, and I started asking why. Why do I feel so much more focused, confident and capable when I’ve been moving my body? Is there any science that explains that and can we use that in some way? And it turns out, there’s absolutely loads of research that explains it.” 

This is what her book explores, looking at all the ways in which physical strength and fitness are interlinked with our brain function. 

“So often, women are fighting against social expectations to look a certain way or behave a certain way. Having the self-esteem that gives you an innate sense that you are capable, you belong here and you deserve to be heard goes a long way, and means you don’t have to fight through another barrier in work and in life,” says Williams.

What causes low self-esteem?

There is no singular cause of low self-esteem, and it’s also never a fixed feeling. Our confidence can fluctuate depending on the minute, hour or day, the situation we’re in and the coping mechanisms we have.

However, our general levels of self-esteem can be impacted by our lifestyle habits. Williams points to research, such as a 2018 paper published in the Springer Series on Epidemiology and Public Health, that suggests both self-esteem and social behaviour tend to be lower among people who spend more time sitting. 

A woman in a yoga class
Moving more has been shown to improve how capable we feel

What’s particularly noticeable is that women are much less likely to be active than men. Statistics from This Girl Can show that there are around 1.55 million fewer women than men playing sport regularly in the UK – and research commissioned by Stylist showed that only one in 10 women have high self-esteem.

“Although it isn’t clear which comes first – the sitting or the depression – physical activity is well known to be helpful in relieving symptoms of both conditions, so it stands to reason that a sedentary lifestyle is not ideal for anyone at risk of, or already dealing with, mental health issues,” writes Williams in Move!.

Why does exercise improve self-esteem?

The science is absolutely clear about the fact that moving improves our confidence, says Williams. “Increasing physical strength, in particular, is associated with improvements in something psychologists call global self-efficacy, which is a measure of what you can handle in the world and how able we feel to cope with whatever life throws at us. 

“There’s this idea that our bodily sensations can inform our brain about how we are on a subconscious level in the background to our lives. Improving your strength just changes those messages – it’s almost like changing the background music. We feel better in ways that we can’t quite put our finger on, we upgrade the physical system and then the whole thing just runs better,” she explains. 

In Move!, Williams dives into this further. She explains the neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio’s concept of the body’s ‘musculoskeletal division’, which has the job of updating the brain about the state of the muscles, bones and other parts of the body that are involved in movement. “Even when no active movement is being performed, the brain is being informed of the state of its musculoskeletal apparatus,” writes Damasio.

“If we let our bodies become weak, the message coming from the musculoskeletal division of the self will read: stiff, feeble, could definitely do better. As psychologist Louise Barrett puts it, if this read-out feeds directly into our perception of ‘what that body can achieve in the world’, then it’s hardly surprising that sedentary lifestyles have been linked to anxiety and low self-esteem,” Williams writes.

Notably, none of this confidence boost comes from the physical changes we’ve long associated with confidence. We’ve been told that we will feel better about ourselves if we just lost weight, built muscle or changed our appearance – but the science doesn’t support that.

“The research shows that people’s self-esteem and confidence changes without there being any visible or measurable differences in muscles,” says Williams. “In some ways, it’s an inside job. It’s releasing this power that we don’t know we have and we feel better because of it. To me, that’s a much better reason to exercise – we should change the focus, especially for women, from getting ‘toned’ to exercising for how it makes us feel and how it improves our lives in general.” 

How to improve self-confidence with exercise

The issue for many women is that they lack the confidence to even get started with moving more. “Getting over that hurdle is an issue in the first place. I think that the way to do it is to start small – even if that’s just going for a walk with friends or joining an inclusive group session. I like social media accounts like @ladies.that.lift who run workshops for women to teach them the basics,” says Williams.

“Remember, anything that involves shifting your own bodyweight around, whether that’s informal exercise or just adding more movement into your life, will improve your strength. Anything that’s not being sedentary has all kinds of great outcomes and will improve self-esteem so you then feel like you can do more,” she says. 

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).