Body image and dissatisfaction in later life


At age 68, Carol’s exercise goals are to maintain her health, improve her balance and flatten her tummy. Seventy two-year-old Joan works out to improve her bone density and to trim down. These real-life examples show that concerns about body weight and appearance can stay with us into our later years, and that adults of all ages want to shape up and look youthful. Some will go to great lengths to do so. This begs the question: Do body image issues persist across the life span?

While most research on body image has focused largely on youth and young adults, recent studies and case reports suggest that older people—particularly women—experience the same pressures toward thinness as their younger counterparts (Zerbe, 2003; Lewis & Cachelin, 2001). Unsurprisingly, “older women are just as likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies,” confirms Justine J. Reel, PhD, assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science. Case reports also indicate that eating disorders are becoming increasingly widespread as the Baby Boomers age (Zerbe, 2003). These findings imply that preoccupation with body image may either persist into old age and/or be triggered at any time throughout life (Reel, 2005).

Fitness and wellness professionals should recognize that clients of all ages may have body image issues. As a result, those who work with people ages 50 and older can benefit from learning about negative body image and gaining the skills needed to identify associated unhealthy behaviors.

Signs of compulsive/obsessive exercise

• repeatedly exercising beyond the requirements of what is considered safe

• finding time at any cost to exercise (including missing work and appointments)

• main goal of exercise is burning calories and relieving the guilt from having just eaten or binged

• requiring permission to eat (i.e., “I can’t eat unless I’ve exercised or know I will exercise”)

• feeling guilty when unable to exercise

• never exercising for fun ritualistic with routines and continuing to exercise when sick or injured (Reel, 2005)

Adapted from

Excerpt from The Journal on Active Aging, July August 2005, by Shari Feuz

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