Bigorexia: When exercising becomes an addiction

Many men will go to great lengths to achieve what they perceive to be their 'ideal bodies'. We interrogate this issue with fitness expert Ronald Abvajee

When you start a fitness journey, it’s usually an attempt to be healthier and improve the aesthetic appeal of your body. But sometimes this can turn into an ugly addiction that has bad consequences for your body.

“They say about 10% to 29% of men suffer from bigorexia – when pumping iron becomes an addiction. They become fixated, it becomes a thing where you just want to go to the gym all the time and everything you do revolves around pumping more iron and getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Abvajee explains.

He says that in some cases across the globe, people have had to have their limbs amputated, have had to have torn muscles surgically restored, and some men have even gone as far as getting chest implants and bicep implants because of this need to get bigger.

READ MORE: Four obstacles crippling your fitness goals

“This is when it shifts from just being a physiological problem to a psychological condition,” Abvajee says.

Bigorexia, which is not an official term, is used to describe a psychological disorder which manifests as a feeling that there is something lacking with your body and that intense exercise is required to fix this. As you over-exercise, body dysmorphia develops.

“Many people are not focused on the proportion of the body. A majority of men are focused on the upper body, you know the whole Johnny Bravo look? This is often mainly due to the fact that upper body muscles are the ones that react very quickly to resistance and weight training and the legs take a long time to build,” Abvajee says. “This is what will often lead to the disproportionate body, but the guys that have this obsession with getting big don’t realise [this], in their minds they are buff, strong and muscular,” Abvajee explains.

He says it’s important that you are measured and assessed when you go to the gym to build muscle.

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“Without measuring the circumference of the bicep, how wide your chest is, how much body fat you have, you are never going to see yourself as big enough. You’ll always think you’re too skinny… and will become fixated on pumping more iron, which leads to bad consequences in the long run.”

Abvajee says that when you measure yourself, you’ll be able to know when to shift your workout from the upper body to the lower body.

“If you measure yourself, you’ll know that your biceps are growing and that your legs aren’t so you’ll know that you have to start to alternate your workout so that everything is balanced,” he explains.

According to Sandton-based clinical psychologist and executive member of the Psychological Society of SA Bradley Daniels, symptoms of the disorder include:
1. A preoccupation with perceived physical defects.
2. Performing repetitive behaviours like mirror-checking, excessive grooming, skin-picking and reassurance-seeking.
3. Comparing your appearance with that of others.
4. Clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

According to Akeso Clinics in Joburg, the warning signs of the disorder are:

1. Missing social interactions because of your exercise programme or a fear of not being able to eat the right food.
2. Neglecting personal relationships to spend time exercising and following a diet.
3. Working out even when injured.
4. Never being satisfied with muscle mass.
5. Maintaining an extremely vigorous workout programme.
6. Maintaining an excessively high-protein diet.
7. The excessive use of food supplements.
8. Steroid abuse and plastic surgery to achieve the perfect body.