• Gustav Notander

How to feel good about your body

Everybody wants to feel good about their body.

What that means is different for each person but there is no doubt that it's important, because how you feel about your body has important implications for how you live your life.

To start off, it's an important factor influencing your self-esteem and self confidence. Think about times in your life when you have felt that you look and feel good. Now think about times when you have felt uncomfortable with how you look and feel... I'm quite sure that you felt more confident when you felt good than when you felt uncomfortable... I'm also quite sure that the times you felt uncomfortable you also experienced the energy drain (consciously or unconsciously) of going around being self-conscious. Not only does this affect your mood and energy in general, it also affects your mental and intellectual performance since it consumes mental bandwidth that could be used for better things.

Another negative consequence of not feeling good about your body is that you limit yourself in what you do and how you express yourself. Avoiding going to the pool or beach for a swim, avoiding picking up a conversation with a potentially interesting person at a party, choosing clothes based on how they “hide” aspects of your body that you are not comfortable with rather than just choosing clothes you like and that show your true personality, limiting your sex life because you don't feel comfortable with how you look naked... These are just some examples of self-imposed limitations in your life that are related to how you feel about your body, and all of them have a profound impact on your quality of life.

It's important to reiterate that what feeling good about your body means is different for each person, but for many of us it includes shedding some of the fat we have wobbling around under the skin and getting more toned and firm.

This is a good goal for most people since most of us carry around too much body fat (actually over 50% of the adult population in Sweden was overweight or obese according to BMI in 2016, probably more if we were to measure body fat percentage, and the numbers are similar or worse in all developed countries). In other words, it's a good idea for most people to think about how get leaner and improve your body composition.

Here's where it starts to get interesting. How you feel about your body has two main components. One is objective and includes things like your actual physical fitness level, your body composition, and how your body actually looks. The other is more subjective and relates to your ideals and points of reference for what you think you should look like and what fitness level you should have to feel good about your body.

The closer you perceive that your objective physical status is to your ideals and points of reference, the better you feel about your body, and vice versa.

The good thing is that you can influence both of these components, but the effort involved is quite different... Improving your objective physical status can take a fair bit of time and effort (time and effort very well invested, though). Changing your ideals and points of reference is much faster and easier.

Let's face it, through all kinds of media today we are fed with body ideals that are very hard to reach. We see the bodies of models, actors, athletes, etc., who have very little fat and very toned bodies with well-defined muscles (the latter particularly applies to the men), and this easily becomes our ideals and points of reference when we look at ourselves.

What I don't think most people realise, though, is that very few people actually look like this all the time, for the simple reason that it takes a very big effort to get, and stay, that lean and toned. The models you see on the magazine covers go through strict diets and exercise regimes to get in perfect shape for the photo shoot (and then of course there's also some Photoshop editing as well). The athletes plan their training and life to be in top shape for specific competitions or parts of the season, etc. But very few can keep that level of fitness and physical appearance continuously.

If your job is to have a body in great physical shape, like if you're an athlete, model, etc., it's reasonable to think that you can spend the time, effort, and resources necessary to be in “magazine cover” shape. If you're job is something else, which it is for the vast majority of us, then it's probably not reasonable to think that you can be in this shape, and consequently it's a good idea to think about what ideals you can have that better match what's possible for you to achieve.

Here's a series of pictures that give you a rough idea of what different body fat percentages look like.

NB. These are examples, the same fat percentage may look quite different depending on height, genetic predisposition of body shape, etc. The exact fat percentage ranges for different definitions can also vary between sources, but this gives a general idea.

Examples of body fat percentages

At the extreme lower end of the spectrum you have the minimum level of fat the body needs to function (men 4-6 %, women 10-12 %). Being this low in fat requires extreme training and diets and is not good for the health. People only reach these levels if they are competitive body builders getting on stage for a competition or if they have severe anorexia or other diseases.

If you add a few more percent of fat you're in the range of the athletes, models, etc. that you often see showing off their bodies in magazines etc. (men 7-10 %, women 13-20 %). Anyone can get to this level with proper dieting and exercise, but it’s tough to maintain for long periods of time for most people. If you want to reach and maintain this level, it requires strict control of diet and calorie intake, as well as rigorous and regular exercise routines.

Add a bit more fat and you're in the range where you look healthy and athletic but lack the definition of the lower body fat levels (men 11-16 %, women 21-24 %). This is a more achievable body composition over the long term since you can maintain it relatively easily by leading a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and a reasonably healthy diet. Given the fact that the health benefits of fat loss drop off around these levels of body fat, reducing your body fat percentage below this range is more about vanity than improving your health. Above this level of body fat you start increasing the risk of negative health effects (small if your a little higher, large if you're a lot higher).

It is of course up to each person to decide what their ideals should be, but my personal opinion is that for most people the “healthy and athletic” body composition would probably be a good target.

With this type of body, most people would feel confident to show up in swimwear (which is a very good practical indicator of how we actually feel about our bodies), it is healthy, and most of all it is an achievable goal for most people since it doesn't require any extremes in either training or diets. It's enough to stick to a generally healthy lifestyle for a longer period of time, including regular exercise (importantly including strength training) and a healthy diet.

Coming back to the idea that how you feel about your body has both an objective and a subjective component, my point here is that you have a higher chance of feeling good about your body if you work with both the objective and the subjective component.

When the objective and the subjective parts converge, that's when you truly feel good about your body.

Your ideals and points of reference become the goals that you're aiming at for your physical fitness level and physical appearance, and like any goal it can be motivating if it is desirable and achievable as well as demotivating if it is too unrealistic.

My feeling is that too many people either try but never quite manage to reach a level where they feel good about their bodies, or simply give up and just accept the fact that they never will feel good about their bodies, because their ideals are too unrealistic. What I want to stress is that it doesn't have to be this way. When we make more conscious decisions about our ideals and points of reference, we are also much more likely to reach the objective levels of fitness and appearance that match them, i.e. we are much more likely to feel good about our bodies.

And feeling good about your body would definitely make a big difference in a lot of people's lives!

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