Men and women taking an exercise class

My Master’s thesis, ‘The Effect of Gender in Improving Body Image and Self Esteem’, which I completed for my MSc in Sports Science, was awarded a distinction and subsequently published in Athletic Insight: Online Journal of Sport Psychology. It has been cited numerous times in other published scientific research.

Athletic Insight is a peer-reviewed journal that discusses the field of sports psychology.

This is my original research, using psychological measurements and statistical analysis, to measure how physical exercise affects body image perception and self-esteem in men and women.

(Note, the following text contains excerpts from my original research. This is not the complete text, please see the link below to access the full version of the paper.)

The Effect of Gender in Improving Body Image and Self-Esteem

Murray Griffin & Sharon Kirby
Centre for Sports and Exercise Science
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Essex


There is considerable agreement that physical activity is associated with improvements in self-esteem and body image perception, however, it would seem that these effects are not the same for both genders. This study examines the differences between the sexes on the effect of activity on self-esteem and body image. Self-esteem was measured using the 10-item Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale; body image was assessed by the 23-item Body Cathexis Scale.

These questionnaires were given to individuals belonging to three different groups: physical exercise (n=20), computer course (n=20) and no intervention control (n=20). They were administered on two occasions, at the start of the activity and after six weeks.

It was found that in males but not in females, body image perception of individuals in the physical exercise group showed a significant improvement after 6 weeks as measured by the Body Cathexis Scale. Again, for males only, the self-esteem of individuals on the computer course significantly improved as measured by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.


The relationship between self-esteem and physical activity has been well-researched. In 1989, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force of the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion concluded that regular exercise could improve self-esteem.

People who place great importance on their physical appearance and fitness, and who are not satisfied with these areas commonly show the biggest improvements in self-esteem. Even if there is no actual improvement in fitness, an individual’s self-esteem may improve just from receiving positive comments about their physique from others.

Body image assessment techniques were initially produced to help psychologists understand body image disturbances. Measurement procedures have mainly focused on two aspects of body image: a perceptual component and a subjective component. The perceptual component is also known as size perception accuracy and is measured by subjects matching the width of the distance between two points to their estimation of their body size or a particular body site.


Over 6 weeks, the two intervention factors were participation in physical activity and undertaking a computer course. The participants were assigned to one of three mutually exclusive groups of 20 who either took part in physical activity, computing or no intervention. Measurements of self-esteem and body image were taken from subjects in each group pre- and again post-intervention.


Part 3 males and females compared.

Self-esteem: Between-subjects t-tests revealed no significant differences in self-esteem scores between males and females in any of the groups either before or after the intervention.

Body Image: Between-subjects t-tests revealed statistically significant differences in body image scores between males and females at the outset of the intervention (physical activity group, t = -3.784, p < .01; the computer group, t = -3.394, p < .01. the control group, t = 281, p < .05. Males had significantly higher body image scores than females in all three groups at the outset of the intervention.

Between-subjects t-tests revealed statistically significant differences in body image scores between males and females after the intervention in the physical activity group (t = -4.706, p < .001); the computer group, t = -3.090, p < .01. but not the control group. Males had significantly higher body image scores than females in the physical activity and computer groups but not in the control group, after the intervention.


The fact that self-esteem and body image only increased significantly in males and not in females is an interesting finding. Previous research has found gender differences in self-esteem favouring males (Marsh et al. 1995) but there may well be some good reasons why body image in females in the physical activity and self-esteem in the computer group did not increase post-intervention.

There were statistically significant differences in body image scores between males and females (favouring males) in all groups at the outset of the intervention. This was also true after the intervention, except in the control group where body image was still higher in males but not significantly.

It is important to take into account the reasons why people exercise, as this may go some way in explaining why physical activity did not have a positive effect on women’s body image in the present investigation. As discovered by Smith et al. (1998), women were more likely to exercise in the pursuit of bodily attractiveness than men, and women who experienced the most body dissatisfaction were even more likely to exercise for appearance and weight control.

Body dissatisfaction is correlated with social physique anxiety, and this anxiety may intensify in exercise settings such as in aerobics and keep fit classes. In these situations, there is a greater emphasis on the female form, which in turn may reinforce the cult of thinness and femininity (Scully et al. 1998).

Cultural and social factors emphasise unrealistic body shapes and according to Gill (2000), thinness is joined by fitness within the body shape ideal. It may be that though exercise enhances a woman’s perceived body image, her idealised body image begins to shift toward a thinner standard, and her ensuing dissatisfaction remains the same regardless of objective improvement (Davis, 1997).


In conclusion, the present study gives support for the notion that participation in a worthwhile activity can improve body image and self-esteem. In this study body image improved as a consequence of aerobic exercise, whilst self-esteem improved following a computer course but both of these effects were seen only in men.

This generates the interesting question of if one were to design an intervention to bring about a positive change in self-esteem and body image and whether the nature of it (for example duration, intensity, style) should be different depending on the gender of the target group.

Griffin, M., & Kirby, S. (2007). The Effect of Gender in Improving Body Image and Self-Esteem. Athletic Insight: Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 9(3), 83–92.

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