As the slightly rebellious and edgy mantra goes, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
Oh, who are we kidding? There’s also the cliche, “Be yourself; everybody else is already taken,” but that doesn’t stop people from being cruel or overly judgmental in today’s world.
Low self-esteem is something that plagues 85% of Americans, including the Hollywood elites like Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds and legendary 70s bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger.
(OK, Reynolds is from Canada, and Schwarzenegger is from Austria, but you get the point.)
We all deserve enough confidence to enter the gym wearing a cut-off tee, ask that special someone on a date, or submit an assignment without questioning our chosen career paths.
According to these nine statistics, the “fix” too low self-esteem might just be exercise!
Table of Contents
- How Exercise Improves Self-Esteem In Adults
- How Exercise Improves Self-Esteem Among Children and Youth
- Beyond Self-Esteem, Exercise Supports Mental Health
- Does Physical Activity Affect Self Esteem?
How Exercise Improves Self-Esteem In Adults
- Men in their early 20s experienced improved self-esteem and mental health after an eight-month aerobic program.
- The link between exercise and higher self-esteem is well-studied, with researchers attributing the self-esteem boost to strength and muscle development, enhanced balance and flexibility, and improved body image.
- Young adults who exercised over a three-month period reported higher self-esteem, greater happiness, and overall better quality of life.
General Self-Esteem Statistics
According to Merriam-Webster, self-esteem is “confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” Or basically how comfortable you feel with your true appearance, abilities, and personality.
Self-esteem expert and self-help author Dr. Joe Rubino estimates that 85% of us suffer from low self-esteem. (Hey, it’s not the most heartwarming fact out there, but at least you’re not alone!)
But did you know this?
- In girls, self-esteem plummets after age nine.
- Boys’ self-esteem typically levels off and drops between 14 and 16.
- Instagram is the biggest self-esteem-killer in young people, while YouTube seemingly offers the greatest boost.
- Teens with low self-esteem are more likely to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, become pregnant in their teens, or perform poorly in school.
- Gen Z is the least confident generation while Boomers are the most (…shocker).
- Lifetime self-esteem peaks around age 60.
- Eighty percent of women and 34% of men aren’t satisfied with their appearance.
- Four in five ten-year-olds fear becoming “fat.”
- Teens with low self-esteem are twice as likely to develop anxiety and are at six times greater risk of experiencing depression.
Between the lost confidence pre-middle school, social media use on the rise, and low self-esteem carried well into adulthood, we’re in the “this is incredibly concerning” camp.
Why Does Physical Activity Improve Self-Confidence?
Half of all Americans are uncomfortable setting foot in the gym, either due to “gym-timidation” or simply feeling overwhelmed by the number of routines and classes available to them.
If that’s true, which it is, then why recommend exercise to those with already-low self-esteem?
Unforgiving spandex, no confidence, some dude benching 400 pounds in the power rack next to you, and feeling like an outcast sure sound like a recipe for disaster … until you consider this:
The Immediate Mood Lift of Exercise
In 2018, researchers discovered the scientific breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for.
No, not that there’s water on Mars, though that was pretty cool, too.
However, if you’re a glutton for instant gratification, 30–60-minute training sessions will deliver a legal and natural high like no other, all thanks to the neurotransmitters in your brain.
During moderate-intensity exercise, the brain releases a rush of feel-good chemicals, best known as “endorphins.”
Often compared to the effects of morphine, these hormones can relieve pain and trigger a sense of euphoria (hence the name “runner’s high”).
At the same time, physical activity also rids the body of excess cortisol and adrenaline — the so-called “stress hormones.” These lower hormone levels encourage zen, calming feelings.
(Research from 2014 also identified a link between levels of happiness and self-esteem; happier university students tended to be more confident!)
Positive Physique Changes & Body Image
America is widely regarded as the “fattest” country on earth. Though that title really belongs to the nation of 10,834 people located off the coast of Australia, Nauru, with its 61% obesity rate.
Obesity rates aside, a 2018 Ipsos Poll found that 79% of Americans report feeling dissatisfied with some part of their physical appearance, including 83% of women and 74% of men.
But we don’t all have the same “dream” bodies.
(Hell, the dad bod is even making a comeback!)
Whether it’s hiking and triathlons or resistance training and HIIT, exercise is one of the most effective methods for reaching whatever your physique goal may be.
As you shrink the gut, carve out a six-pack, or add inches to those stubborn biceps, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident in your own body (AKA: self-esteem).
Outlifting your friends or obliterating your old PRs are simply confidence-boosting bonuses!
Better Cognitive Functioning & Emotion Regulation
We already know that exercise can add years to your lifespan, reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, and help maintain healthy body weight.
But did you know exercise can actually “reprogram” your brain? Here’s how:
In the scientific world, neuro means nerve, and genesis means production — or nervous tissue production (in this case).
A 2015 study found that exercise can create new brain cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that regulates emotion processes memories, and defines our “sense of self.”
A healthier hippocampus can translate to greater self-confidence.
Better Focus & Concentration
That same seahorse-shaped hippocampus also controls the brain’s learning functions, which is why you may feel mentally sharp in the hours after a workout.
This temporary surge in focus can help you feel more productive at work or in school, giving you a sense of pride in work and accomplishment to your name.
Exercise Silences Symptoms of Depression & Anxiety (Sort Of …)
That relentless, self-defeating mindset isn’t always a sign of something brewing beneath the surface. Yet, low self-esteem and anxiety & depression are often an unfortunate package deal.
Exercise is a well-studied treatment alternative for many medical conditions, including some cancers, hypertension, and plantar fasciitis. (Of course, the benefits have their limitations.)
But just how effective is an exercise for treating depression and anxiety and, in turn, low self-esteem? Take a look at what the research says:
Exercise as a Treatment for Depression
In a 2000 clinical trial, researchers analyzed the effects of exercise, antidepressants, and a combination of the two in patients with depression over a ten-month span.
By the end of the study, 30% of the exercise group — who walked/jogged on a treadmill three times per week for 16 straight weeks — still reported symptoms of depression.
Compare that to the Zoloft group (52%) and the combination group (55%).
Exercise as a Treatment for Anxiety
The researchers behind a meta-analysis from 2018 scoured the results of 15 scientific papers studying the connection between exercise and anxiety relief.
The results trended positively. They suggested that that exercise can lessen anxiety side effects, with the high-intensity exercise groups reporting even fewer symptoms.
Exercise can also decrease muscle tension, ruminating thoughts, and high cortisol levels common with crippling anxiety and negative self-esteem.
How Exercise Improves Self-Esteem Among Children and Youth
- Physically active children and teens experience greater self-worth and self-concept, especially when exercising at school (i.e., recess, physical education).
- Teens aged 12–17 who engage in exercise are more confident in their physiques and boast higher self-esteem.
- A three-week exercise intervention in teens came up empty-handed, failing to improve self-esteem or identify a connection between gender and benefits.
- Athletic third-grade boys experienced greater self-esteem than their girl classmates.
Physical Education Leads to Improved Self-Esteem
If you’re having flashbacks to high school PE, running lap after lap on the track, or Gator Balls whizzing past your ear in dodgeball, you’re likely wondering: how does that build self-esteem?
The real self-esteem benefits of PE begin in the elementary years.
The Social Aspect
About 7% of Americans struggle with social anxiety disorder. Or an intense, heart-pounding, thought-racing, nausea-inducing fear of social situations (i.e., dates, walking through a crowd).
This shyness and lack of confidence typically begin around age 13. Now, PE classes can’t “undo” the negative experiences or trauma that can cause social anxiety or low self-esteem.
But they can teach children leadership skills, teamwork, and positive communication to develop socially. A study of 88 scientific papers concluded that PE and youth sports could improve:
- Perseverance and resilience
- Decision-making skills
- Social responsibility
- Coping skills
As children learn to interact with their peers, master difficult skills, grow into their true selves, and cope with their emotions, they can improve their confidence in social settings.
Any Exercise Is Good Exercise
Video games and iPhones are the default scapegoats of this generation. They’re blamed for poor social skills, lower test scores, declining mental health, and the ongoing obesity epidemic.
But “screen time” isn’t just another media-crazed boogieman. In fact, while just 15% of girls and 22% of boys get an hour of exercise per day, those bowing out are turning to their devices more.
Yes, even if you only jog when the teacher’s watching or achieve the impressive feat of not touching the soccer ball once during an 80-minute block.
Overweight Kids Become Overweight Adults
In 2017, the obesity rates in American children topped an alarming 14.4 million — or 19.3%.
The data speaks for itself: overweight children are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, according to a 2012 study comparing self-esteem in normal weight and overweight youth.
The 545 overweight and obese children in the study were more likely to:
- Be bullied by their peers
- Be less satisfied with their scholastic and athletic performance
- Be less confident in their physical appearance
- Feel like outcasts amongst their classmates
- Develop disturbed eating patterns
If even half of all children exercised for 25 minutes three times per week, an estimated 350,000 fewer children would be obese or overweight, and the self-esteem rates might just rebound.
The odds of being an obese adult are also five times higher in obese children, while 80% of obese teens carry this trait into adulthood.
Doing the math here … if active children become healthy adults, and adults who exercise tend to be more self-confident, then exercising during childhood should set off that cascading effect.
Today’s Teens Are Concerningly Unconfident
Gen Z is the new Millennials — the butt of jokes, mocked for everything (losers don’t even know what MySpace was!), and born into an era where life is tougher than generations past.
But instead of calling them “snowflakes” or saying, “You think that’s hard? When I was your age –,” practice a little empathy. These statistics offer an even more disturbing perspective:
- In 2019 (that was pre-COVID), 33% of high schoolers reported feeling hopeless.
- Seventy-five percent of teen girls with low self-esteem pick up destructive habits.
- Instagram’s toxic nature leaves 32% of teen girls feeling worse about themselves.
- Seven in ten teen girls don’t feel good enough.
- 8.4% of children have anxiety or depression.
- Thirty-six percent of UK teens would go to extremes to “look good,” including dieting (57%) and considering cosmetic procedures (10%).
Gen Zers (or more like 85% of people) view themselves in a negative light, often severe enough to contemplate suicide or develop unhealthy coping strategies — such as alcohol abuse.
Low Self-Esteem & Mental Health Diagnoses Are Climbing: Here’s Why
We can’t dispute the positive effects that exercise has on the developing teen brain.
For instance, 2019 research connects physical activity in teens with healthier body image and more confidence in their skills, which feels like the (eerily dim) light at the end of the tunnel.
But why is crippling self-doubt and insecurity the “norm” in today’s generation at all? (No, we’re not talking about that cringe-worthy edge of Tik Tok that finds mental illness “edgy” or “unique.”)
Social media giants like Facebook and Instagram are well-aware of how toxic their algorithms, policies, and platforms are for young minds. (Their own research teams discovered as much.)
If there’s a link between having more friends and healthier self-esteem, then why do a quarter of teen social media users call these platforms “mostly negative?” We can make a few guesses:
- Photo manipulation: London researchers found that 90% of young women edit their selfies before sharing them online. Whether it’s whitened teeth, a slimmer waist, or a narrower nose, many of us can spot Photoshopping from a mile away (especially if you know the person in real life or catch the wavy bathroom tiles). Yet, with enough exposure, face-tuning makes some teens wonder, “Is that what I should look like?”
- FOMO (fear of missing out): Fifty-six percent of all social media users experience FOMO — or an anxious feeling that others are having fun without you. When teens see their peers posting about thrilling joy rides, (dingy) basement parties, or lavish cruises, they feel like outcasts or like they’re leading boring lives.
- Follower counts and likes: The problem with social media — aside from all of it — is that it’s easy to equate followers and “likes” with self-worth and social approval. Gaining followers, maintaining a “good ratio,” and posting images that capture likes in the triple digits brings a wave of confidence, while the self-esteem-defeating opposite is also true.
Teens desperate for peer approval and to feel included may hitch their entire self-esteem on their social media following, which is a modern-day powder keg.
Some percentage of self-esteem is genetic. However, our eventual adult self-esteem begins developing as early as four, although it often plateaus and dips during our teenage years.
Our life experiences help mold our confidence and self-concept. But one of the strongest influences on self-esteem development is those who brought us into this world: our parents.
Parents who preach respect, responsibility, affection, independence, and learning from failure tend to nurture a healthy self-esteem in their children.
Meanwhile, controlling, judgmental, overprotective, harsh, and perfectionist caregivers create an environment full of anxiety, self-doubt, and low confidence.
In fact, a Yahoo Health Survey of 1,993 people uncovered quite a few eye-openers, but one was more disturbing than the rest: a quarter of people have felt body-shamed by their own parents.
Parents of the 20.2% of children who face bullying often comfort their children by explaining away their bully’s cruelty: “He’s just jealous of you,” or, “She’s probably insecure.”
Not only is that not true (kids are f’in ruthless, man), but studies debunking that mindset also prove that high school bullies tend to have high self-esteem and a higher social status.
Unfortunately, their victims are left picking up the pieces.
Between the mocking, shoving, spreading rumors, and petty “uninviting,” impressionable kids begin to feel like outcasts and question their true worth (they wouldn’t bully me if I…).
Persistent bullying can quickly spiral into self-doubt, distrust, isolation, anxiety, and depression. Many teens resort to keeping to themselves or hiding their passions to avoid bullies.
Why Are Young Boys More Confident Than Girls?
It’s been a while, but if we’re remembering correctly, puberty is like the adult version of a DMV trip — unavoidable, the tenth circle of hell, and dragging on ten times longer than it should.
Self-esteem plunges in both boys and girls during those painfully awkward pubescent years. Some blame the raging and off-kilter hormones, while others believe it’s the physical changes.
But why the sudden drop-off in self-esteem in girls around age 12?
According to The Atlantic, those tween girl years trigger a surge in ruminating thoughts, perfectionist attitudes, and the desire to please everyone.
Many tween girls perceive falling short of these high expectations as failure or being “less than.”
Of course, exercise may play a role in the gender disparity. Research shows that boys aged 8–12 are 19% more active than girls their age, possibly explaining the improved confidence.
The self-reliance, decision-making skills, assertiveness, and grit taught in sports may give boys a leg-up on the self-esteem front — 45.6% of boys and 36.4% of girls currently play sports.
All in all, athletic boys have the best odds of feeling confident.
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Beyond Self-Esteem, Exercise Supports Mental Health
- An hour of walking or 15 minutes of running per day can cut depression risks by 26%, relieve symptoms of depression, and avoid depressive relapses.
- Short-term, strength and aerobic training can improve self-esteem in children and teens with emotional, cognitive, motor, or behavioral difficulties.
Mood-Boosting Endorphins Create a Natural “High”
(Slightly off-topic, but between 1929 and 1948, the soda 7UP had lithium citrate in it, the mood-stabilizing medication commonly used to treat bipolar disorder today.)
If nothing else, exercise is one of the free-est, legal-est, and safest ways to get high.
Period. End of sentence. Full stop.
In addition to the “runner’s high” endorphin rush following a half-hour of fitness, the brain also releases the neurotransmitter serotonin.
(An imbalance of this chemical is linked to many cases of clinical depression.)
In fact, the antidepressant effect of exercise is so impressive that many doctors prefer to recommend physical activity over medication for patients with mild depression.
The mood lift and serotonin rush may not permanently alter your brain’s chemistry. But the temporary reprieve makes the ever-crashing waves of depression slightly more bearable.
Exercise Creates a Mental Escape
One word we’d use to describe depression and anxiety on their own is “haunting.” (If you have both at the same time, it’s best described as, “Seriously, what the actual f–?”)
Whether you’re at the store, at the altar, socializing, getting sloshed at a dive bar, or watching yet another rerun of Ridiculousness, those thoughts sneak up, seemingly out of nowhere.
Studies suggest that self-distraction techniques can ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression over time, while ruminating thoughts, not surprisingly, tend to do the opposite.
For some, exercise is the perfect way to zone out for 30+ minutes, silence those relentless negative thoughts, and focus their entire attention on one thing — exercise.
(If the pounding of your own feet on the treadmill or grunting don’t inspire you, shove in your AirPods and listen to fast-paced, 125–140 beats per minute music.)
Physical Activity Burns Off Excess Energy
Restlessness, an urge to move, feeling “on edge,” and being unable to sit still are a few of the common physical symptoms reported by those with anxiety disorders.
The combination of released endorphins, lower stress hormone levels (namely adrenaline and cortisol), and used-up energy can induce a calming and stress-relieving effect that lasts hours.
Half of the adults coping with anxiety also report abnormal sleep habits, like insomnia.
The rush of dopamine and serotonin post-exercise overwhelm the central nervous system (CNS) and deplete your ATP stores — the body’s primary energy source — and lead to fatigue.
Exercise helps those with anxiety fall asleep, stay asleep, and regulate their internal clock. Again, it’s no cure, and the fix may only last the night, but progress is progress.
The Best Types of Exercise for Mental Health
Every few months, like clockwork, the internet unleashes a firestorm of simple life hacks that’ll supposedly turn your world upside-down. Like using toilet paper rolls as phone speakers…
(We won’t feed into the trend. You’re welcome.)
Scientists have yet to discover a single type of exercise that improves mental health and self-esteem better than the rest. But these are among the most well-studied examples:
HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training)
HIIT is one of the most-talked-about cardio trends in online forums. Some hail it as the best thing since sliced bread, while cardio friends claim it’s no better than steady-state runs.
One 2021 study set out to compare the mental benefits of six 40-minute HIIT sessions per week vs. moderate-intensity training at the same volume — all during a six-week quarantine period.
A HIIT workout can be as simple as a four-minute Tabata workout: 20 seconds “on” (fast-paced) followed by 10 seconds “off” (slow-paced), repeating this cycle eight times.
Between its focus on zen, deep breathing, and slow controlled movements, yoga delivers a sense of mental clarity and stress relief unlike any other exercise on earth.
This ancient Indian practice continues picking up steam in the psychological community.
In one 2013 study highlighting yoga’s antidepressant effect, participants in the “yoga only” group ended the program with a significant drop in cortisol levels, more so than the medication group.
Lower cortisol levels translate to fewer stress hormones rushing through your body. However, yoga also releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin to create a sense of calm.
It also doesn’t cost a dime if you have an internet connection and access to YouTube.
What started as an I’m-bored-as-hell, all-out-of-booze, YouTubed-to-death last resort early in the pandemic became a life-changer for many. Yes, more people than ever discovered … walking?
Walking is one of the best alternatives for the anti-running crowd who still want to get active. (Plus, if you visit the local preserve or hiking spot, simply being in nature can boost your mood.)
A 2021 study in older adults linked walking with improved mental health and concluded that moderate or vigorous walking is slightly more effective than low-speed strolls.
While 10,000 steps per day are no longer the gold standard it once was, studies do link this daily step count to lower fatigue, anxiety, anger, and depression,
Other Ways To Support Your Mental Health
Exercise isn’t the only way to protect your mental health and self-esteem, and even though the evidence is quite clear, we also know that some of y’all despise the gym atmosphere.
In addition to (or even instead of) exercise, don’t forget to:
Talk to a Trusted Confidant
Stress and some mental health issues evolve from pent-up or ignored feelings and thoughts. When you feel overwhelmed, angry, or upset, vent to somebody you know and trust.
(Guys, it’s not weak to express yourself. Somebody out there will listen.)
Find a Hobby or an Outlet
Did you know that people with hobbies are less likely to face depression?
These positive outlets also trigger the reward system in the brain that releases the same feel-good endorphins as exercise.
Play guitar, try photography, build stuff (like Ron Swanson), or learn to play chess.
Eat a Healthy Balanced Diet
Diet can’t completely alter the malfunctioning brain chemistry.
However, research shows that those who eat fresh produce are less likely to develop depression and be happier than those who eat processed or canned fruits and vegetables.
Diets high in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, seeds, and nuts also bring a lower risk of anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
Does Physical Activity Affect Self Esteem?
Physical activity does affect self-esteem both short and long-term. During exercise, the brain releases endorphins that uplift your mood.
Exercise also triggers neurogenesis — the creation of new brain cells — in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls our sense of self.
The connection between physical activity and self-esteem is nothing short of fascinating. But what happens if your low self-esteem is stopping you from exercising in the first place?
Here are a few tips for building your confidence while getting active:
- Join a more casual gym chain, like Planet Fitness.
- Sign up for exercise classes designed for complete newbies.
- Ask the front desk staff which times/days the gym is least crowded.
- Train from the comfort of your own home.
- Start slow, take rest days, and focus on weekly progress.
- Weigh yourself and take body measurements to monitor your success.
- Find a gym buddy — on your level — who’s willing to join you.
- Listen to music while you work out, just don’t forget your headphones.
Now, all that’s left is choosing a workout plan that matches your experience level and goals!
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