Running and Body Image

running womanIt’s no secret that many people take up running to lose a a bit of weight. And provided you’re fit enough to sustain a few miles a few times a week there aren’t many better ways of shifting fat and burning calories.

And for those who stick to the sport long-term, running can gradually – but profoundly – alter body shape and composition. Regular racers often have greyhound-like physiques with ultra low body fat and toned muscles. Committed runners in their 50s and 60s are able to maintain physiques that many 20-somethings would be jealous of.

The running ‘look’ has become highly desirable in wider culture in recent years, partly because of the success of running in promoting itself as the sport of successful, fit, healthy, attractive people. As a result lean, toned running bodies have become status symbols. They give off signals about a person’s fitness, energy and perhaps their mental toughness. As many runners attest, they make us feel good about ourselves. They are outward signs of who we are, and of what we are capable of.

The data collected via the Big Running Survey offers the opportunity to look at how running involvement alters people’s self-perceptions around their bodies over time. By looking at how likely respondents are to apply different body descriptors to themselves depending on how long they’ve been running we can see how body image changes qualitatively with running experience. We can also look at changes in the scores of body satisfaction over the time, helping us quantify the positive impact of running on body image.

Key body descriptors

So first, here are the frequencies of three key body descriptors that are associated positively with running experience. The black line indicates the overall trend:

Runners describing themselves as 'slim' over year of running

Runners describing themselves as 'lean' body image

Runners describing themselves as 'athletic' body image

It’s clear from the black trend lines on the above charts that there is a strong relationship between people’s self-descriptions as ‘slim’, ‘lean’ and ‘athletic’ on the one hand and years spent running on the other. Looking a little more closely at the individual means for each year (the blue dots) we can see that there is a steep rise in these descriptors over the first 5 years of running and a steady increase thereafter.

The wider spread of blue dots at higher numbers of years is because there is less data at the really high numbers of years, so less opportunity for means to even out.

Next are two descriptors that are negatively associated with increasing running experience.

Runners describing themselves as 'carrying a few extar pounds' body image Runners describing themselves as 'overweight' body image Again we see an especially steep change in these descriptors over the first few years of running, and a steady change after that. Whilst 24% of people in their first year or so of running describe themselves as ‘overweight’, by year four it’s down to 9%. This could be for a couple of reasons: Either running is helping these people lose weight rapidly over the first year, or perhaps overweight people tend to give up running after a year or so if it doesn’t seem to be helping them lose weight. It’s probably a bit of both.

The gentler descriptor ‘carrying a few extra pounds’ shows a much smoother slope with a clear downward trend.

Body satisfaction

So what do these changing perceptions of body characteristics mean in terms of runners’ body satisfaction over the years of their involvement in the sport? We can find a strong clue in the self-rating of current body satisfaction (out of 7) provided by each respondent.

Here I have broken the data down into male and female respondents, and the line represents the overall trend across the first 32 years of involvement in the sport.

Runners' body satisfaction over the years

We can see that there’s a clear and strong relationship between years of running and body satisfaction. For women this starts around 4/7 and rises to around 5/7. For men it goes from 4.4 up to 5.4. This is a significant jump as most of the body satisfaction scores cluster around the 3 – 5 range. Few people give themselves a 1, 2 or 7.

What’s driving this change? There are a few possibilities:

  1. Runners’ ‘ideal body shapes’ remain the same over the years, but their bodies are shaped by running in a way that brings them closer to this ideal.
  2. Time spent involved in running, seeing runners, aspiring to be a better running, reading running media etc. subtly alters the runner’s body ideals in ways that make them closer to their existing body shape.
  3. A bit of both of the above: Long-term runner’s have been immersed in a running culture that both shapes their bodies to be more like ‘running bodies’, and also celebrates running bodies as attractive and healthy.
  4. Perhaps getting older makes people more at ease with their bodies irrespective of how much running they do. Long term runners are, on average, older than short term runners (the latter haven’t been alive long enough to amass decades of running experience).
  5. Older runners may become more satisfied with their bodies because running helps them maintain certain valued characteristics that their contemporaries increasingly lack as they get older. So older (more experienced) runners feel happy about their bodies because they compare them to less active people of the same age.

Unfortunately the data doesn’t allow us to unpick this. However, I am currently conducting interviews that should throw more light on the stories and lived experiences over time that could help explain these changes.

I’m sure that the precise reasons for improving body-esteem in runners over time vary hugely from person to person, but the overall picture is a positive one for runners. The big picture shows a strong relationship between long-term participation in the sport and positive body image.

Because running bodies are also active, healthy bodies this has to be a good thing.


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