The ‘dark side’ of bodybuilding and signs to look out for

·5 min read
The perfectionistic nature of bodybuilding can be a risk factor for disordered eating and body image issues, experts say.
The perfectionistic nature of bodybuilding can be a risk factor for disordered eating and body image issues, experts say.

Big biceps, toned abs and cut calves – it's what society deems as the perfectly sculpted body, but is it always healthy?

Striving to this ideal, as bodybuilders and weight lifters often do, has the potential to cause serious consequences on a psychological level, experts say.

"Research has shown that sports and activities that have an aesthetic component to them, where the way one appears is part of how one is being evaluated or judged, tend to have higher rates of eating disorders," says Dr. Sari Shepphird, a sports psychologist specializing in eating disorders. "Not only higher than in the general population but higher than even in other sports where the rates are already high."

While there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to get in shape, the kind of perfectionism that is required in sports like bodybuilding is one risk factor in developing these issues, Shepphird says.

"It's a sport that... a lot of people find... exciting and engaging and motivating, but you just need to make sure, overall, that it's not beginning to affect your quality of life (or) your mental health," she says.

Body builders or weightlifters run the risk of falling into the category of orthorexia, which is when someone is unhealthily obsessed with being healthy, explains Dr. Elizabeth Wassenaar, regional medical director at the Eating Recovery Center.

"They are really preoccupied with eating food or engaging in activities that it feels like will help drive them towards health, and then paradoxically actually end up becoming more unwell," she says.

A gym goer who struggles with this may think that if they workout enough and build enough muscle then they will be in peak health – but what happens is, they're never satisfied.

"That's kind of the crux of the illness: (It's) never enough," Wassenaar adds, explaining that body dysmorphia can also be at play.

One specific type of body dysmorphia that is seen among bodybuilders is muscle dysmorphia, which has also been referred to as bigorexia or reverse anorexia.

The American Psychological Association defines muscle dysmorphia as "a form of body dysmorphia characterized by chronic dissatisfaction with one’s muscularity and the perception that one’s body is inadequate and undesirable, although objective observers would disagree with such an assessment."

This condition often leads to excessive exercising, steroid abuse and eating disorders, according to the APA.

That doesn't mean everyone you see at the gym lifting weights has an eating disorder.

"Going to the gym doesn't cause the eating disorder, but when the preoccupation with an ideal body shape or weight becomes someone's driving force, or when there's an over emphasis placed on one shape or weight, then that can create a climate that contributes to disordered eating," Shepphird says.

Why it often goes unseen

Wassenaar explains it can be difficult for people to recognize they have a problem with bodybuilding because these body ideals are "reinforced by our society that values the appearance of fitness."

This reinforcement is amplified on social media, where people have access to a constant stream of imagery and often find themselves making comparisons.

"We live in a culture where eating disorders thrive because of the messages we're exposed to," says Claire Mysko, head of youth outreach for the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA. "Social media heightens that exposure."

Another reason it goes unnoticed is due to the nature of body image distortions, which don't allow the person to see themselves how they really are.

"From the outside it may look like somebody is fairly muscular, because they spend a lot of time lifting weights... When they look in the mirror, they (may) not see themselves as appearing healthy or fit," Wassenaar says. "Sometimes they will think that they have much smaller muscles than they do, and so they keep trying to look a certain way."

And despite eating disorders being among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose, athletes may be less likely to seek treatment for an eating disorder due, in part, to stigma, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Bodybuilder Rob Lipsett highlighted the stigma surrounding eating disorders in a YouTube video about his own experience, admitting he "really didn't think it would happen to me."

"This is kind of the dark side of fitness, and it's something that people don't like to talk about," he says.

Is my weight lifting going too far?

If you're wondering if you have crossed into an unhealthy form of fitness, Shepphird suggests you evaluate the motivations behind your exercise and food habits.

"If your identity becomes overly tied to your exercise or your food, then that would be a time to consider that you have to reevaluate that," she says.

Wassenaar says it's helpful to question whether the drive to get your body to a certain size or shape is interfering with your ability to live a more rounded life.

"If you are foregoing relationships, job responsibilities, sleep, things like that because you feel driven to work out or driven to be at the gym, then that is a sign of a disorder," she says.

Nutritional deficiencies, feeling depressed or anxious and mood changes are more signs things have gone too far.

If you suspect your loved one is struggling, Shepphird says to the best thing to do is speak up.

"Lovingly point out that you're concerned that the balance in that person's life is becoming off or out of balance and that you're worried about their mental health," she says.

Wassenaar admits this can be a hard conversation but suggests this phrasing as a potential jumping off point: "I'm really worried about you. I see that you're trying to do this thing to make yourself feel better, but it seems like you're feeling worse. I wonder if we can find some help, together."

Lastly, finding a mental health professional can be crucial in moving toward recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association's toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text "NEDA" to 741-741.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bodybuilding and the risk of orthorexia, eating disorders in fitness

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