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

Experts warn that the perfectionist nature of bodybuilding can lead to disordered eating or problems with body image.
It's the ideal body. But is it healthy?

Experts warn that pursuing this ideal, such as weightlifters and bodybuilders, can have serious psychological consequences.

Research has shown that eating disorders are more common in activities and sports that have an aesthetic component. This is according to Dr. Sari Shipphird, a specialist in eating disorders. "Not only are the rates higher than the general population, but they also exceed those in other sports.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be in shape. However, Shepphird warns that the perfectionist approach required in bodybuilding and other sports can lead to problems.

She says, "It's an exciting sport that...a lot of people find... motivating and engaging, but you need to ensure that it doesn't begin to affect your quality life (or) your mental well-being."

Orthorexia is a condition in which a person is obsessed with their health and is unable to exercise or bodybuild.

She says that they are preoccupied with food and engaging in activities that will drive them to health. However, paradoxically, they end up getting sicker.

This may lead a gym-goer to believe that if they exercise enough and build enough muscles, then they will be in peak physical health. But the truth is they are never satisfied.

Wassenaar says, "That's kinda the crux of illness: (It is) never enough." He also explains that body dysmorphia could also be involved.

Bodybuilders are often affected by muscle dysmorphia. This condition is also known as bigorexia and reverse anorexia.

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Muscle dysmorphia is defined by the American Psychological Association as "a type of body dysmorphia that is characterized in chronic dissatisfaction with one's muscularity and the perception that one body is not adequate or undesirable". However, objective observers might disagree with this definition.

According to the APA, this condition can lead to eating disorders, excessive exercise, and steroid abuse.

This doesn't necessarily mean that everyone who lifts weights at the gym has an eating disorder.

Shepphird states that "Going to the gym does not cause eating disorders, but when someone is obsessed with a body or weight that's ideal, or when they place too much emphasis on one particular shape or size, that can lead to disordered eating."

It is often not visible

Wassenaar says it can be hard for people to see that they have a problem bodybuilding, because society values appearances of fitness.

This reinforce is amplified by social media where users have constant access to imagery and are often tempted to make comparisons.

Claire Mysko, the head of youth outreach at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), says, "We live in a culture that eating disorders thrive because we're exposed too many messages." Social media increases that exposure."

It is also due to body image distortions that make it difficult for people to see themselves as they are.

It may appear that someone is quite muscular from the outside, as they have spent a lot of time training. Wassenaar states that they may not perceive themselves as looking healthy and fit when they look in the mirror. They may believe they have smaller muscles than they actually do. So they try to appear a certain way.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders, eating disorders are among the most serious mental illnesses.

Rob Lipsett, a bodybuilder, highlighted the stigma surrounding eating disorders through a YouTube video that he made about his own experience. He admitted that he didn't believe it would happen to him.

He says, "This is kinda the dark side fitness and it's something people don't want to talk about."

Are my weightlifting efforts too much?

Shepphird recommends that you examine the motivations behind your exercise routines and your food choices if you are unsure if you have strayed into unhealthy fitness.

She says, "If your identity is too tied to your exercise or food, then it would be a good time to think about that."

Wassenaar suggests that it is helpful to ask yourself if your drive to be a fitter or more muscular body is hindering your ability to live a more balanced life.

She says, "If you are sacrificing relationships, job responsibilities and sleep because you feel driven or motivated to go to the gym, that's a sign that you have a disorder."

More signs that things are not right include feeling depressed, anxious, and mood changes.

Shepphird advises that you speak up if your loved one is in trouble.

She says, "Lovely mention that you are concerned about the balance in this person's lives and that you are worried about their mental health."

Wassenaar acknowledges that this conversation can be difficult but suggests the following phrase: "I'm really concerned about you. It seems that you are trying to make yourself feel better. "I wonder if there is any way we could all work together to find some relief."

Finally, it is important to find a mental health professional in order to move towards 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 Text "NEDA" (741) 741 to get 24/7 help.

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This article first appeared on USA TODAY: The risk of eating disorders and orthorexia in bodybuilding