Physical activity levels influence body-part compatibility effects during exposure to physique-salient images


According to social comparison theory, media-portrayed images of body ideals are likely to evoke automatic social comparisons in women, and may be linked with appearance-management behaviours, such as physical activity. The objectives of this study were to (i) assess the impact of a forced automatic physique-comparison on reaction time in a body-part compatibility task, and (ii) examine the moderating effect of physical activity. Young adult female participants completed a computerized task in which they executed hand- and foot-press responses to coloured targets on the hand or foot of physique-salient digital images of three models. Models had distinct body shapes, conceptualized from media-portrayals and consisted of a thin-ideal model, average-size model, and a plus-size model. Participants were 18-25 years of age (Mage=19.97±1.56) and were categorized as low moderate-to-vigorous physically active (MVPA; n=33, Mdays=2.37) or high MVPA (n=34, Mday=4.59). Consistent with previous research on body-part compatibility, reaction times were shorter for compatible body-part pairings (e.g., hand response to the hand stimulus) than for incompatible pairings (e.g., hand response to the foot stimulus). Additionally, a significant 4-way interaction effect (F(2,130)=4719.86, p<0.05) revealed that the compatibility effect was largest for the thin-ideal model, and was modulated by higher MVPA. That is, there was larger body-part compatibility for women who make implicit social comparison when presented with a physique-salient model, and that this is especially true in more physically active women. Following a social comparison framework, it is likely that individuals who are more physically active are also primed to dedicate more cognitive processing resources (e.g., social comparison) when presented with physique-salient cues, especially when these cues fit the normative thin-ideal. Further research is needed to elucidate the role of MVPA as an adaptive or maladaptive behaviour linked with exposure to popular media-driven thin body ideals.