“How can I nurture my body after having mistreated it for so long?”: Exploring women’s in-depth experiences of applying self-compassion to physical activity distress


Although substantial evidence supports the benefits of regular physical activity, women consistently report less engagement and enjoyment of physical activity, and higher rates of physical activity dropout and avoidance, compared to men. Meta-analytic evidence demonstrates that self-compassion is an emotion regulation strategy that is associated with greater physical activity engagement, more autonomous forms of physical activity motivation, and more positive body image and self-views. Nevertheless, in-depth explorations of how self-compassion can be applied to cope with distressing physical activity experiences have been scarce. As such, the purpose of the present study was to conduct an in-depth exploration of women’s experiences of applying self-compassion to cope with distressing physical activity experiences. Sixteen self-identified women (Mage = 30.43, 19-58 years) participated in a semi-structured interview about their experiences of applying compassionate approaches to physical activity. Using reflexive thematic analysis, women described how applying self-compassionate responding to physical activity distress involved (i) harnessing an inquisitive and curious mindset about distress and bodily movement, (ii) critically reflecting on normative fitness rhetoric, (iii) attuning to sensations and honouring the body in its current state, (iv) actively filtering distressing stimuli and protecting oneself from future distress, and (v) recognizing that cultivating a self-compassionate approach in physical activity is an evolving journey. These findings underscore that the application of self-compassion in coping with physical activity distress is nuanced, multi-faceted, and includes features that are not captured by general assessments of self-compassion. Further, the findings suggest that cultivating self-compassion may support women’s long-term participation in physical activity.