Obsession and mental health

Weightlifting is considered an important part of almost any fitness routine.

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.

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.

A Dangerous Obsession

It’s a common misconception that the body can function as the ultimate DIY project. Media and adverts these days 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.

A healthy weightlifting routine involves working muscles in a rotating pattern, pushing muscles to slight fatigue and then stopping. A healthy weightlifting routine also involves resting when the muscles feel sore or overworked.

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 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:

  1. Do you work out even when you’re injured?

  2. Do you spend more than an hour each day lifting weights?

  3. Do you lift weights more than once per day?

  4. Do you think about lifting weights, or about your muscle size, for the majority of the day?

  5. Has your need to bulk up interfered with your ability to make friends or hold down a job?

  6. Are you unhappy when you can’t lift weights?

  7. Are you convinced that you’re small, even though others say you’re not?

  8. Do you find yourself looking in the mirror multiple times each day, measuring your muscles?

  9. Do you try to cover up your small muscles?

  10. 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.

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.”

According to the International OCD Foundation, about 0.7 percent to 2.4 percent of the population has some form of body dysmorphic disorder, and an obsession about muscle size is common.

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.