While aerobic exercises like jogging and riding a stationary bike can improve the health of the heart and lungs, pumping iron is the best way to help improve the bulk of the muscles, adding definition and increasing overall strength. While weightlifting can be helpful for most people, there are some people who take a weightlifting routine a bit too seriously, and they develop behaviors that do much more harm than good.
One such case was described in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. The researchers describe a 23-year-old man who became obsessed with weightlifting. He became convinced that his body was small and puny, and he began to lift weights and exercise obsessively. He developed an injury that made it painful to lift weights yet he couldn’t stop. Over time, his obsession took over his life. The man was unable to leave his house without exercising first, and he dropped out of school and lost contact with his friends as a result. While this story might seem frightening, especially if it seems familiar or it could describe your own life right now, there is good news. This man recovered from his bodybuilding addiction with therapy and medications. You could do the same.
Harmful Media Messages
Body image issues could begin in childhood, and this statement applies to boys as well as girls. For example, some toys that boys play with have very small waists and huge, ripping muscles that would be impossible for the average person to attain. G.I. Joe Extreme, for example, would have a 55-inch chest and a 27-inch bicep if he were a full-sized person. His bicep would be as big as his waist, and it’s not a bicep size found in nature. Even Marc McGwire’s biceps measure in at about 20 inches, and he’s considered an elite athlete.
Source: Body Image
A Dangerous Obsession
It’s a common misconception that the body can function as the ultimate DIY project. Commercials would have you believe that spending just a bit more time at the gym can help you transform your body from thin to fabulous in just a few weeks. The truth is, however, that no workout can help you build only muscle and eliminate all fat. The body needs fat in order to survive. Fat contains energy the body can dip into on a rainy day when food is scarce, and the human body is designed to look for calories it can pack away as fat. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to develop a body that contains only muscle and no fat, unless you’re willing to go to extremes and push your body in ways that it is not designed to be pushed. If you have a bodybuilding addiction, you might be willing to go to these extremes.
If you have a bodybuilding addiction, you might do neither of these things. Instead, you work out each and every day, never stopping, and you push yourself to the brink almost each and every time you work out. If you can’t work out that day, for whatever reason, you feel anxious and upset. And even though you are spending a huge amount of time on your weightlifting, and you may be getting huge as a result, you may still not feel as though you’re as big as you’d like to be.
Bodybuilding addictions can happen to almost anyone, but they tend to be more common in men than women. This could be due to the fact that the culture seems to favor women who are thin and lithe and men who are strong and powerful. It’s what we’ve been taught is beautiful, and we tend to learn those lessons quite early. For example, according to a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, girls younger than 18 who were surveyed wanted to be thinner but boys younger than 18 wanted to be bigger. While the researchers point out that “big” could mean almost anything, it’s commonly assumed that boys are referring to an increased desire to gain muscle, and that’s the sort of thing that can be built up through endless sessions of bodybuilding.
If you can answer “yes” to questions like this, you might have an addiction to bodybuilding:
- Do you work out even when you’re injured?
- Do you spend more than an hour each day lifting weights?
- Do you lift weights more than once per day?
- Do you think about lifting weights, or about your muscle size, for the majority of the day?
- Has your need to bulk up interfered with your ability to make friends or hold down a job?
- Are you unhappy when you can’t lift weights?
- Are you convinced that you’re small, even though others say you’re not?
- Do you find yourself looking in the mirror multiple times each day, measuring your muscles?
- Do you try to cover up your small muscles?
- Do you compare your body to those you see in magazines, convinced that you’re too small?
The Link to Eating Disorders
In a way, a bodybuilding addiction is a bit like anorexia in reverse. While people with anorexia starve themselves from food in order to lose weight, people who have a bodybuilding addiction obsessively try to put on muscle mass. In a way, they’re trying to gain weight, while people with anorexia are trying to lose weight. But people who have a bodybuilding addiction might do more than just spend time at the gym. They might also change their eating habits in order to support their addictions. For example, you might:
- Guzzle protein drinks
- Limit your intake of fats
- Count your calories
- Keep a journal of what you eat
- Create lists of foods that are “good” and “bad”
- Feel guilty if you eat foods you’ve deemed off limits
All these behaviors are common in people who have eating disorders, and it could be that some people with bodybuilding disorders have both conditions at the same time. In a way, it’s understandable. If you’re weightlifting to gain ultimate control over your body, you might extend that control to what you’re allowed to eat.
For some people with a bodybuilding addiction, steroids add an extra punch that can boost muscles and reduce fat. Steroid use among weightlifters is remarkably common, according to a study published in the journal Addiction and Health, with 18.8 percent of those studied reporting not only use of steroids but abuse of them as well. Steroids are powerful drugs that can change the way you think and the way you feel, and they could make an addiction to bodybuilding all the more difficult to break.
Link to OCD
Bodybuilding disorders can walk hand in hand with other mental illnesses, including a specific illness known as body dysmorphic disorder. People who have this disorder become convinced that one specific part of their bodies is so ugly and horrific that it alone can be blamed for all the problems they face in their lives. If this is happening to you, thoughts like this might seem familiar:
- “I can’t go to the beach! People will laugh at my puny legs.”
- “When I talk to my boss, I know he’s looking at my tiny neck.”
- “If I could just bulk up 10 pounds, my coworkers would stop talking about me that way.”
- “If I get an abdominal implant and got that washboard stomach, I know I would get promoted.”
If you have body dysmorphic disorder, however, you might also have other obsessions about your body. For example, you might be obsessed with hair growing on your chest and convinced that it is ugly and should be removed. Or, you might become concerned about the size of your head or your feet. Sometimes, the area you’re concerned about seems to ebb and flow, with one concern popping up as another is moving away. All of these obsessions can go hand in hand with a bodybuilding disorder, especially if you’re enrolling in competitions for bodybuilding and spending a lot of time comparing your body to the bodies of others.
People who obsessively lift weights as a result of body dysmorphic disorder may have very little insight into the issue. In fact, it’s common for people with these disorders to claim that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way they think or with their overall mental health. Instead, they’ll lay the blame at the feet of the defect they believe they’re trying to correct. For this reason, many people don’t go into treatment until they’re pressured to do so by friends and family members. They may be unable to come to this realization alone, and they depend on others to make the issue clear.
Not everyone who develops a bodybuilding addiction has a mental illness at the same time. In fact, some people develop bodybuilding addictions for completely different reasons altogether. For example, a study in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that children who were bullied by their peers on a regular basis were more likely to develop compulsive weightlifting routines later in life. Since they felt weak as children and unable to defend themselves against taunting, they resolved to get stronger through weights, and found that no amount of bulking up seemed to help them deal with the traumas they faced. Similarly, a study in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry found that 13 percent of female weightlifters were raped when they were teenagers or young adults. Again, the urge to bulk up seems to be linked to a prior feeling of powerlessness and a need for control.
Living With a Bodybuilding Addiction
As you’re reading through this article, you may be wondering exactly why your compulsive weightlifting is such a big deal. After all, you’re doing something that’s good for your muscles and it seems to help you relax and deal with the issues you’re facing. What could be harmful about that, right? Unfortunately, living with a bodybuilding addiction can have serious consequences on the rest of your life, and left untreated, it could take over your life altogether.
- Fifty percent reported spending more than three hours every day thinking about their muscle size.
- Fifty-eight percent reported that they avoided specific situations and interactions because they thought their muscles were too small.
- Fifty-four percent felt they had little or no control over the amount of time they spent exercising.
- Two of the subjects even left high-paying jobs so they could work at gyms and have fulltime access to weights.
As these results demonstrate, an addiction to bodybuilding can truly take over your life, robbing you of the ability to maintain friendships, have a career and focus your energy on other meaningful activities. It’s not a condition that tends to get better by itself, either. In fact, without treatment, it might even get worse. That’s why committing to treatment, and completing a formal treatment plan, is so important.
The sort of treatment you’ll receive depends heavily on why you feel the need to obsessively focus on bodybuilding. If you’re working out to help forget a trauma, for example, you might need different therapies than someone who has obsessive-compulsive disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The therapy that helps you might not help the other person, and the reverse might also be true. However, conditions like bodybuilding addictions are often successfully treated with a combination of talk therapy and medications. You’ll learn more about why you feel the need to work out so compulsively, and you’ll develop tools you can use when the urge to work out strikes. Medications might help to calm those urges, too, which may allow your therapy to progress a bit quicker. You can recover from a bodybuilding addiction. With help, life can return to normal once more.
If you’d like more information on bodybuilding addiction and treatment that works, contact us today. We are here 24/7 to answer your questions.