Bigorexia: the invisible compulsive disorder

Last Monday, the news that one in ten men training in UK gyms could have an anxiety disorder hit the airwaves. BBC Radio One’s Newsbeat reported that ‘bigorexia’ can lead to depression, use of steroids and even suicide. The condition places pressure – mainly on men, but it also affects women – to be more muscular and to have a ‘fit’ body.
But why has bigorexia, or muscle dysmorphia, only just come to our attention? There has been established recognition of, and focus on, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating both in public and private spheres. In the media, on television and in notable campaigns eating disorders have been discussed. Student Minds hold an Eating Disorders Awareness week ever February. On social media and in social groups, there is more of an open discourse concerning eating disorders than over-exercising conditions. Although this discourse is not as open and accepted as it should be, as is the problem with many mental health issues, there has been a much greater focus on it than bigorexia; the dangers of over-exercising are often overlooked.
Men’s Health Forum told The Student, ‘The truth is that over-exercising, physical inactivity and eating disorders don’t get enough attention. Patients suffering from eating disorders have to wait up till three years to get treatment – worsening their conditions.’
In many ways, it is a gender issue. France has banned models with too low a BMI from working as models, which shows society’s awareness of the danger of eating disorders in girls. The website for Men Get Eating Disorders Too suggests that eating disorders in women are often more sensitively treated by health services than those in men – some men being told to ‘just eat a pie’. Indeed, in relation to diagnosis of eating disorders, problems with menstruation are often cited. This implies that only women are susceptible to these conditions.
But for men, more is often more. In terms of appearance and exercise, society expects men to achieve the ‘V’ shaped body and have large biceps. Even the mention of working out at the gym results in recognition of a successful man. Muscles and going to the gym are a status symbol.
A fourth year student doctor told The Student: ‘For years, men seem to have got away with looking however they wished, whilst women bore the brunt of the scrutiny. That level of scrutiny has now worked its way into the male image. However, it isn’t just being fat that is judged; it is also being too thin. Everywhere you look there are images of ‘perfect’ chests. It even seems that it is a prerequisite to get a job in TV or film. It isn’t enough to be healthy and exercise anymore – the exercise you do has to result in a muscular physique. Too much cardio and somebody will probably be telling you to stop the running and start lifting some weights.’
Another issue is that most of us are too fat. Of the English population, 43% is physically inactive and either does not exercise enough or not at all. In England, 61.7% are either overweight or obese. There is therefore a large pressure from society to eat healthily and exercise regularly. But sometimes this pressure can become too much. Exercise bulimia works in the same way to bulimia nervosa – a binge of food before a ‘purge’. With exercise bulimia, however, the ‘purging’ comes not from vomiting but from burning off food through exercise.
One sufferer of exercise bulimia told me that she always used to exercise for the fun and competition of it, but when it started to become part of her eating disorder, she lost any motivation for it. ‘I didn’t know why I was exercising. I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t even focussing on a fitness goal. I lost all sense of knowing what was healthy anymore – it was just to be rid of the feeling of guilt and failure that drowned my thoughts after I’d felt I’d eaten too much. Just to be rid of the voices and be back on equal calorie grounds again.’ She would binge on chocolate and brownies, and exercised compulsively, becoming dangerously underweight.
Social acceptance is also key in examining why we have ignored the problem of over-exercising. It is possible that the greater focus on eating disorders as a problem over bigorexia or exercise bulimia is because eating disorders are a more obvious problem. Lauren White, a University of Sheffield masters student, says that exercise is more socially acceptable than disordered eating. ‘People don’t like fussy eaters because it’s socially awkward. Exercise, on the other hand, is socially beneficial.’ The fact that fussy eating is exclusionary and exercise is inclusionary marks the difference between social dialogues.
There is also the problem of consumerism with which to grapple. The goal of being muscular brings in money to gyms, supplement companies and magazines alike. Estimates say that 7.6 million people in the UK have a gym membership, many of which go unused. Applying pressure to men to be bigger is a business. Drawing attention to the problems around over-exercising and exercise bulimia is not, therefore, a priority. The more pressure there is surrounding society to go the gym, the bigger the profits.
But the dangers of over-exercising are vast. Excessive training and use of steroids, both symptoms of bigorexia, can lead to heart attacks and strokes. In addition, the other side effects of steroids, such as hair loss, liver problems and testicle shrinkage pose other problems.
It sounds simple, but more awareness is key. It’s difficult to see that there is a problem with over-exercising, and difficult for people to detect that a friend or family member is suffering from bigorexia or exercise bulimia.
When told, it’s also hard for people to understand the dangers of over-exercising: it’s not anorexia; it’s not bulimia nervosa. As a nation grappling with obesity, the dialogue towards over-exercising needs to be nuanced – but it also needs to be more present. There needs to be a greater public awareness in relation to exercise conditions, instead of constantly promoting the message that exercise is always good for your health. Hopefully, with that would come a greater shared understanding and a release of the societal pressures to be more muscular and appear fit.

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