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Quit punishing yourself at the gym. Stop starving yourself with the latest diet. If you really want to improve your health, treat your body with love. After all, says Dr. Pamela Keel, professor of psychology at Florida State University, "if you treat your body like you hate it, you're not going to take as good care of it."

Body acceptance isn't always easy, especially when you're used to comparing your body with the seemingly flawless physiques of models and the Hollywood elite. So what can you do to feel more comfortable in your skin?

Keel has adapted a program called the Body Project, developed by researchers in Oregon and Texas, which can be used by men and women. The first step, she says, is to generate a description of what you consider is a "perfect" or "ideal" body, and to ask yourself where that comes from. Who benefits from perpetuating this ideal? And what is the cost of trying to attain it?

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When contemplating these questions, people often recognize that there isn't any objectively perfect body type, and that these ideals change, depending on the culture and historical period, Keel says. And they realize for most people, there's no great benefit to trying to adhere to an unrealistic standard, nor is the cost really worth it.

Besides challenging these ideals, Keel suggests doing a "mirror exposure" exercise. Look at yourself in the mirror naked or in as little clothing as you feel comfortable wearing. Notice any negative judgments you make and let them go. Then, redirect your attention to the positive qualities of your body.

Perhaps start with how your body functions, she suggests. For instance, appreciate how your arms are able to hold and comfort those you love. Or how your legs can take you where you want to go.

Try also paying attention to what you appreciate about the appearance of your body, whether it's the colour of your eyes or the shape of your jaw. Do this exercise as often as you need.

Developing a healthier relationship with your body may not only boost your confidence, it can give you the motivation you need to nourish it, give it adequate rest and take pleasure in exercising it.

"Really valuing your body for what it can do then can translate into treating your body with a great deal more care and respect," Keel says.

The Globe's Life reporter Dave McGinn shares what he learned over the last 6 months of eating healthy and working out The Globe and Mail

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