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Bigorexia: Eating disorders, men and the fitness industry

Updated: Apr 19

close up photo of man in gym lifting weights

In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in conversations about eating disorders and whilst raising awareness is a good thing, there is one aspect that too often gets ignored – men. Men are suffering from eating disorders too, yet these issues are often dismissed as a ‘girl thing’ or even passed off as ‘a phase’.

In reality, toxic body standards can have serious consequences for men just like they do women: intense anxiety around food and exercise, obsessive thoughts about weight-loss or gaining muscle mass (known as muscle dysmorphia or ‘bigorexia’), disordered eating behaviours, substance use, depression from comparing oneself to images on social media and fitness accounts… the list goes on. If you need support, please don't hesitate to contact our team.

When discussing men, boys and eating disorders, it’s hard to ignore the massive impact the fitness industry has had. The rise of “gym culture” over the past few decades has been accompanied by an explosion of social media accounts dedicated to posting photos of muscular physiques and weightlifting videos, which often lead to comparisons in body ideals and strength.

Such content is usually made with the purpose of inspiration and help but can feed into body standards and pressure for individuals to look a certain way. Such societal attitudes often trigger harmful or obsessive behaviours.

Boys and men are more likely to suffer from ‘bigorexia’ or muscle dysmorphia, with studies suggesting around 25% of adolescent males are worried about not having enough muscle.

The term “Adonis Complex” has been coined to describe these circumstances, where men experience body image distress in the pursuit of obtaining the “ideal” male physique.

Many men may not even realise their workout routine has drifted towards obsession, nor that their body image has become dysmorphic (i.e. they see themselves differently, often smaller and less muscular than they actually are).

If you’ve found yourself spending more and more time in the gym, or have become increasingly concerned with building muscle, you may be developing a problem.

What are the signs and symptoms of muscle dysmorphia?

1. You spend long hours lifting weights with little or no rest days

Whilst everyone’s workout length and rest days vary, more than 5 full workout sessions a week could be too much. Remember, your body needs time to rest too and pushing your body too far could end up causing problems.

2. Excessive attention to diet

Those preoccupied with building muscle will often be concerned with protein intake, which is fine, but obsessively counting macros and/or calories, along with anxiety and stress when certain figures aren’t met, could be a cause for concern. It’s okay to use food to fuel your body but it’s also okay to enjoy food and meal times. If your diet is causing you anxiety, you may need to talk to a specialist.

3. The use of performance-enhancing drugs to meet muscle goals

Studies have shown that men are more likely to take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs than women. However, such drugs bring a whole new range of health issues. Steroids can cause behavioural problems such as mood swings and aggression and health problems such as liver damage and heart disease.

4. Missing out on social or recreational events which may interfere with diet, exercise or cause anxiety

A healthy relationship with exercise often means a balanced lifestyle i.e. you take time away from the gym and specific diet plans. Spending time with friends and family, eating out or missing the occasional workout shouldn’t cause stress, anxiety or guilt, nor should you feel restricted by such events.

group of happy friends eating pizza in a living room

5. Feelings of guilt, disappointment and not being good

Whilst actions are a great way to pick up on potentially harmful mindsets towards exercise, diet and the gym, how you actually feel is key. Exercise and a healthy balanced lifestyle should make you feel happy and calm and spark positive emotions. You shouldn’t feel anxious, guilty, agitated and down about your workout routine, diet and body.

Seek help

We want to stress that weightlifting, exercising and setting goals in the gym isn’t a bad thing. Exercise and weightlifting provide great benefits for mental as well as physical health. For many people, exercise is a form of self-care which provides time to focus during a busy life and can be a great way of socialising and making friends too.

What is important, however, is that you monitor how you feel when in the gym and eating. Is it making you feel anxious, or overwhelmed or have your thoughts around the gym become obsessive? Have thoughts of working out harder and building more muscle become constant and unavoidable?

Schoen Clinic UK specialises in helping children, young people and adults with eating disorders and mental health conditions. If you think you might be experiencing muscle dysmorphia or a form of disordered eating, speak to your GP or get in touch with our team.

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