An obsession with fitness might sound like something positive to most people. But the mental health condition known as muscle dysmorphia ends relationships, causes job losses and can even lead to suicide or drug-related deaths in the worst cases.
It’s now reached almost epidemic levels on the British fitness scene with a staggering one in 10 men in UK gyms thought to be affected.
Also known as bigorexia, muscle dysmorphia is a psychological disorder related to an unhealthy obsession with looking bigger, leaner and more masculine. Sufferers find themselves spending large portions of their day worrying about their looks, and their fitness regime can take over their life.
This is a phenomena that has grown over the last 40 years. Although health problems caused from anxiety over physical appearance have been documented as far back as 1890, the mania around big muscles is believed to have taken its roots in the 1980s. Figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Silvester Stalone emerged as models of what the male body should look like, taking over from more slender sex icons like David Bowie or Clint Eastwood from the ‘70s.
In 2019, societal pressure to look big is obvious. Just switch on Love Island and you’ll find six packs and bulging muscles shoved in your face. One study even shows action figures have become more jacked since 1980.
But obvious societal changes and pressure isn’t the only underpinning of muscle dysmorphia. The NHS highlights the causal role of genetics. Individuals with a chemical imbalance in the brain are much more likely to develop mental health problems, including those related to body image, particularly when combined with early traumatic experiences.
There are a number of dangers related to the condition, with depression and eating disorders being linked with the internal pressure to constantly improve physical appearance, but drug use has perhaps some of the gravest consequences.
Up to 1 million Britons are thought to be using performance enhancing drugs for looks rather than sporting reasons. These often-unregulated substances can cause serious health defects like enlargement of the heart and dangerous mood swings.
With such serious potential consequences, the bodybuilding community needs to be aware of muscle dysmorphia. An addiction to fitness can have life-changingly positive effects on happiness and well-being, but it’s also crucial to realise when the habit becomes a problem.