New disorders in a time where ‘getting big’ is big

Step into any gym at any time of day, and you will find them: The shiny, vascular, impressively self-constructed bodybuilders. Grunting and growling. And always growing.

The fitness industry has been booming for decades, and so has participation in fitness competitions. However, pair these with today’s pressures to look a certain way, and the potential for disorders and substance abuse arises.

Common sense says a healthy amount of exercise, paired with a well-balanced diet, is important in order to not only stay healthy, but also to achieve a desired — and desirable — body image. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends that adults be active for 150 minutes, or roughly three 45 minute workouts, a week. Bodybuilders and fitness competitors often far exceed this, sometimes putting in two hours a day, six days per week.

When does a healthy amount of exercise turn into a dangerous obsession? Rachel Hendry, a personal trainer, there are warning signs.

“Physically, it becomes an obsession when the person starts to exhibit signs of over-training,” Hendry says. These include loss of appetite, insomnia, chronic fatigue and increased injuries, such as pulled muscles and strains. Many people striving to achieve the ideal body image are in fact doing the opposite, she says, potentially causing long-lasting damage to their bodies.

The American Council on Exercise says that an acceptable range of body fat is between 14 and 31 per cent for women, and six to 25 per cent for men, with 10 per cent for women and two per cent for men being the lowest possible amount to survive.

Many threads on suggest that women strive for six to 10 per cent body fat when looking to compete, and virtually zero for men. Maintaining a low body fat percentage for an extended period of time can cause osteoporosis, infertility and decreased immune function.

Cody Harker, a bodybuilder and fitness competitor, says it is important to find the right balance.

“I believe it is possible to over-train because you need to allow time for your muscles to repair themselves.” He shoots for seven per cent body fat when he is not competing, and as low as possible when he is preparing for a competition. Many men strive for one to three per cent.

More importantly, trainer Hendry says, there are psychological factors. “When your life revolves around your workouts and it begins to interfere with other aspects of life, such as work and relationships, this can be incredibly damaging.”

There are many disorders associated with body image, including body dysmorphia, anorexia and muscle dysmorphia, a condition where the patient believes that his or her muscles are too small, even if they are obviously massive.

Megan Bradley, who works for a local gym, sees these issues first hand.

“Men’s body image issues are just as severe as women. They are never ‘big’ enough and never satisfied,” she says. Most men who workout at her gym are aiming to achieve a specific look. “They are striving to be big. They want to have broad shoulders and a massive chest.”

While many of these disorders cause the person to overly obsess about exercise, often times working out is not enough. Abuse of supplements and substances, such as steroids, fat burners and different protein products, is a growing issue.

In a report published by the Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, two researchers say the abuse of supplements by men and women who compete could be classified as a new type of eating disorder.

In their report, Jeffrey Harvey and John Robinson explain how it is difficult for doctors to diagnose these disorders, due to the current classification system of eating disorders, which usually involve restrictive diets.

“In addition to eating disorders, men may show signs of muscle dysmorphia or reverse anorexia. Men with these disorders are obsessed about their bodies and believe that their muscles are too small and underdeveloped despite the fact that they may have substantial muscle mass.”

As for how prominent these issues are, Hendry says it’s obvious that it is a growing problem. “With an increased interest lately from people to do figure and bikini competitions it is definitely clear when a competition is nearing as people start to look very lean and may have a body fat percentage too low,” Hendry said.

Hendry says that working out three to five times per week is ideal, depending on the individual’s goals. “More time is needed to recover if you’re lifting heavy, so the heavier you lift the more rest days you need. Three days per week of cardio integrated with moderate weightlifting is fine to maintain health.”

She says maintaining a healthy weight and fitness level can be as simple as listening to your body. While you can have too much of a good thing, exercise is one thing that you can be sure is beneficial, as long as you aren’t too hard on yourself.

“Create a routine, and stick with that,” she says. “As long as you’re making exercise a habit and not an obsession, you can’t go wrong.”

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