Addicted to the gym: What it’s like living with bigorexia

The condition affects one in ten young men

Bigorexia, also known as Muscle Dysmorphia, is the mental illness causing increasing numbers of young men to become increasingly anxious and often depressive. These symptoms are a result of an unachievable body image and an obsession to get bigger, leaner and stronger.

Increased muscle mass can have a positive effect on someone’s confidence, but when your mind doesn’t allow you to see your progress, obsessions and darker thought patterns set in.

The condition is mainly affecting people aged 17-26, however, some can be as young as 13, with one in 10 young men suffering from the mental illness. I spoke to two students about how it’s affected them, the symptoms, and what they are doing to combat it.

Harry Moore, 22, student and Personal Trainer

Harry began bodybuilding at the age of 16 and has ballooned from 60kg to 104kg in over six years, largely sparked by the fame of Arnold Schwarzenegger. So why is 104kg not enough?

Harry said: “I don’t see my body as anything special if anything I’m distinctly average. It’s that very reason that I continue, I don’t want to be average, I don’t believe in comparing myself to others either, what I do, is compare myself to where I want to be. This is probably more dangerous as the place I want to be is inevitably going to be unachievable as the desire to grow continues.”

Very honestly, Harry opened up about the psychological harm it was having on him to the point where he admitted breaking down in tears on several occasions due to the disappointment he felt in himself.

“I remember laying on my kitchen floor for hours, my head was a mess and I’m not ashamed to say that it drove me to tears. This mentality isn’t a single occurrence, it can be triggered by anything, not hitting a personal best, or by not reaching my caloric target”, he told The Tab.

Alex Carr, 24, Sports Management Graduate

Alex replicated this very harsh and real truth to the point he avoided his whole friendship group for large periods of time. Alex said: “It was that gut wrenching feeling of self-disappointment, I hated to hear people say (even as a compliment) that I looked leaner or lost weight, so I simply avoided that possibility altogether at the cost of my social life.”

Even a joking comment such as “chicken legs” could cause a psychological spiral for him: “I would laugh and smile when people used to joke but when I got home it would really hit me. I wake up every day and the first thing I do is actually go to the mirror, I know it’s not normal but what is normal?”

Alex has always been a high achiever, consistently competing at national level in athletics, yet through all that success he said he can’t see past the “average guy in the mirror.”

He added: “Something as uncontrollable as an illness would mean disruption and a caloric deficit. During my second year at university, my priority to train and eat almost cost me my degree, I was in agony for months but I knew if I saw a doctor about it, my training, my body and my diet would suffer too much, so I decided to ignore the pain, a truly stupid idea”.

In all honesty, this was quite a somber interview with revelations you wouldn’t expect from these giants. Yet that was a point both were quick to draw on, they both are strong advocates for individuality. They can see that one should be happy with what they have achieved and that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others and the unrealistic magazine models. Both admitted to psychological damage and several occasions resulted to tears, and the message was that’s ok. Media dictate a man should be a man, no crying, stiff upper lip etc. but that’s exactly what’s causing the issue, unrealistic values.

The pair and another friend have now gone on to create a YouTube channel promoting realistic training and encouragement that perfection is not healthy. The YouTube channel called Team ForNever Lean (TFNL) is an obvious statement that they have come far to beat the chiseled abs conception of bigorexia.

They are still obsessed with getting stronger and bigger, but they both agreed that their presence on social media was fighting fire with fire. They said: “We’re aiming to allow young men and women to accept that there are limits to how far one should go, and urge anyone suffering to talk. We will personally extend our hand and guarantee to answer or talk to anyone reaching out to us. We want to help people from going down the wrong avenues.”

These avenues can lead people to take very harmful actions such as performance enhancing drugs, operational implants or worse causing a consortium of illnesses and problems. Others jeopardise their careers, family, and whole life by missing social events and substituting work for a work-out and even depriving themselves of relationships.

The concept of Bigorexia seems fantastic to a lot of people – “who doesn’t want to be addicted to the gym?” Well, the answer lies within addiction, like all other dependencies if you go too far the effects can be irreversible. Like all other psychological issues, the first line of attack is to talk about it, and through highlighting the very real experiences of Harry and Alex, the sooner the better.

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University of Sheffield