Body Image and Athletes

Question: What are two things dogs and athletes have in common?

Answer: One, both dogs and athletes love to exercise. Two, they both come in different sizes and shapes.

Question: What is one thing dogs and athletes do NOT have in common?

Answer: Dogs are content with their natural physiques, while too many athletes try very hard to change the way they look. These athletes might be better off being like dogs. That is, does that bulky St. Bernard yearn to look like a lanky Greyhound? Heavens, no! Does the barrel-chested Labrador want to look like a sleek Setter? Doubtful. Each dog is very proud to represent his breed. Wouldn't life be easier if each active person could be just as proud of his or her "breed"?

As a sports dietitian, I spend too many hours helping my clients find peace with their bodies. Most of these active people take the outside-in approach. They think if they change their body from the outside by losing undesired body fat or by adding some muscular bulk, they will be happier on the inside. Unfortunately, that's not true.

No weight will ever be good enough to do the enormous job of creating happiness. This story, told to me by a cyclist, proves that point: "I once weighed 124 pounds and was unhappy with that weight.  I started exercising and dieting rigidly. I lost to 99 pounds but I still wasn't happy. I ended up binge-eating; I gained to 160 pounds, where I was miserable. I sought help from a counselor, stopped eating emotionally, and with time, got my weight back to 124--and I felt happy there! Why couldn't I have been happy at 124 pounds in the first place? Because happiness has nothing to do with weight..."

Granted, some people do have excess body fat they can appropriately lose to be healthier as a person and lighter as an athlete. They can rightfully feel pleased when they accomplish the goal of attaining an appropriate weight. But other athletes just think they have excess fat to lose; they have distorted body images.

A survey of 425 collegiate female athletes reports the women wanted to lose 5 pounds, on average (1).  Another survey of the top women runners in the country found the same results (2). Even elite athletes wistfully believe they will perform better if they are leaner. Unfortunately, the struggle to attain that "perfect weight" can cost them their health and happiness. Restrictive diets with inadequate protein, iron, zinc, calcium and a myriad of other health-protective nutrients--to say nothing of carbs for fuel--often contribute to injuries and poorer performance.

So what can you do if you are discontent with your body? First of all, you should get your body fat measured to determine if you actually have excess fat to lose. Data can be helpful. (Find a local sports dietitian to measure your body fat via the referral network at  You may discover you have less body fat than expected.  

Feeling Fat

It's easy to understand why so many athletes have distorted body images. When you put on skimpy running shorts that expose your "flabby things", or a bathing suit that shows every bump and bulge, you can very easily feel fat. Sound familiar?

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