September 28, 2021
Big biceps, toned abs, and cut calves: Those are the muscular manifestations of a perfectly sculpted body. But is bodybuilding actually good for your health?
Not really, experts say, according to a report by USA Today. In fact, they believe that striving to create this muscle-bound ideal—as bodybuilders and weight lifters often do—has the potential to cause serious consequences on a psychological level.
“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,” Dr. Sari Shepphird, a sports psychologist specializing in eating disorders recently told USA Today. “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 in Denver.
“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.
Indeed, Wassenaar points out, a gym goer who struggles with this may think that if the he or she works out enough and build enough muscle that the result will be peak health—but what happens is, they’re never satisfied.
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.
But that doesn’t mean that 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.
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 New York City-based National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA. “Social media heightens that exposure.”
“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.”
He admits, “This is kind of the dark side of fitness, and it’s something that people don’t like to talk about,” he says.
However, think about talking to a professional or contacting one of the associations for help if you are targeting the perfect body in your workouts, but never seem to be satisfied.
Research contact: @USATODAY