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Social Anxiety As A Deterrent To Physical Activity

sharma-obesity-distored-body-image1Social anxiety, defined as persistent fears of one or more social situations in which the person is exposed to others and expects to be scrutinized, has been reported in as many as one in ten individuals with overweight or obesity.

Now, a paper by Abbas Abdollahi and Mansor Abu Talib, published in Psychology, Health and Medicine, examines the relationship between social anxiety and sedentary behaviour in this population.

The researchers surveyed 207 overweight and obese students (measured heights and weights) using a number of validated instruments to assess social anxiety, sedentariness and body esteem.

As one might expect, social anxiety was associated with lower body esteem and higher sedentary behaviour.

The key mediator in this relationship was body dissatisfaction and poor body esteem.


“…obese individuals with poor body esteem are more likely to report social anxiety, because they are concerned about negative evaluation by others; therefore, obese individuals indicate avoidance behaviour, which, ultimately, leads to social anxiety.”

The implications of these findings are obvious,

“First, when assessing the social anxiety in individuals, it is important to account for the presence of sedentary behaviour in addition to other psychological risk factors. Second, reducing sedentary behaviour can alter the effect of social anxiety factors; this may be a significant factor to incorporate into social anxiety treatment programmes. Reducing social anxiety in individuals is a main part of any clinical intervention. Third, the findings of the current study suggest that health professionals should encourage obese individuals with social anxiety to reassure their value and abilities regardless of their weight or body shape, and assist them to recognize that everybody is unique and that differences between individuals are valuable.”

This will take more than simply telling people with overweight to be more active. It will certainly require targeted and professional help to overcome body dissatisfaction and low self esteem.

Or, even better, we need to do all we can to help people gain more confidence and be accepting about their own bodies in the first place.

Vancouver, BC

ResearchBlogging.orgAbdollahi A, & Talib MA (2014). Sedentary behaviour and social anxiety in obese individuals: the mediating role of body esteem. Psychology, health & medicine, 1-5 PMID: 24922119




  1. An important post that has implications outside of medicine proper, and into the fitness, dance and sport worlds. Being assessed for participation at a gym or community centre can add to or decrease an experience of being scrutinized and/or judged on physical appearance. It would be a shame to improve understanding and communication from medical professionals about increasing activity, only to have people get discouraged by the preconceived notions of the next professional they talk to about making that change a reality.

    As another note, I find it interesting and disturbing that the study didn’t include average or underweight participants. In my experience, weighing in at an average or below average number doesn’t stop many people from bearing excruciating anxiety about being seen by others in change rooms, and/or while being physically active. I guess the assumption is that only overweight and obese people suffer from inactivity due to social anxiety. A miss, not a hit, in my opinion – focussing on what is visible, while neglecting what flies under the radar.

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  2. As a Dietitian it should be a no-brainer that I am active. I used to be, but chronic depression and generalized anxiety make it hard for me. I need to feel very safe to enter a yoga class or join a group bike ride. Every small barrier adds huge indecision and procrastination to my active life. My best friend’s back pain stops her from riding or going to yoga, and I don’t want to go without her in case I feel uncomfortable around others. My bilateral achilles tendonitis means I might hold riders back, or not be able to do yoga poses — I don’t go. My perimenopause added tremendously to this. Sometimes I stand at my door in my bike/yoga clothes and just can’t talk myself into opening the door and going. Now my lack of fitness itself is a barrier to me wanting to get out and be active. What helps? Mindfulness, group therapy at our Mental Health Centre on anxiety management and managing negative self talk and fortune telling. But those classes run for 8 weeks, and then I’m on my own again. I’m not lazy or fat or unmotivated, just get stymied by my anxiety.

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  3. I will never forget being teased mercilessly in gym class as a junior and senior highschool student for being fat. They made fun of the fact the “official” gym strip didn’t fit, that I couldn’t run fast or do the old Canadian Fitness Test where you had to hang from a bar for 1 minute. I was actually quite good at sports like hockey and baseball but I was teased in that context as well by people being “surprised” that I could score goals or hit triples.

    I lost a lot of weight in my twenties and started running which has sustained me into my fifties though all the weight has come back on to what I weighed as a obese teen.

    I go to the gym regularly and break all the fitness records, but the trainers tell me that I should be working on my weight. I keep going because I told them to “stuff it” and because my anxiety is best treated by doses of high intensity cardio activity. However, I still wonder what kinds of looks I am getting because I don’t look like someone who should be as fit as I am.

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