Is Bodybuilding Addictive?
Bodybuilding can be an extremely rewarding discipline; the benefits of bodybuilding include increases in strength, bone density, metabolism, mental acuity and self-esteem. These benefits assume the training methods and periodization used by the bodybuilder are well-informed, and do not include binge-eating or the use of illegal substances.
However, like any hobby or sport, bodybuilding must be integrated into a person lifestyle in such a way that it’s balanced. People often ask, “Is Bodybuilding Addictive?”. The answer isn’t simple – there are various aspects to the bodybuilding lifestyle that walk a fine line between healthy and damaging. First and foremost, bodybuilding is about the way a person looks – being rewarded for your efforts with changes in your appearance, and then receiving recognition for those efforts with positive attention, results in dopamine releases. Additionally, besides the psychosocial rewards, physical activity generally facilitates the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain.
So the answer is yes, bodybuilding can be addictive – however, the real question is when do these habits with addictive potential become full-fledged dysfunction and destructive addictive practices? It’s also important to keep in mind that while the overall goal (muscle tissue gains and low body fat) of bodybuilding can be addictive, it is a confluence of several lifestyle habits, each of which can become an individual disorder. Also, what are the psychological mechanisms by which this transition from a hobby into an addictive disorder is produced? This shift into dysfunction often takes places in the pursuit of goals that are beyond the scope of what is possible without extreme training, extreme diets, and anabolic drugs.
Next is an in-depth look at how various principles and lifestyle habits of bodybuilding can shift into addiction, disorders, and health consequences.
Bodybuilders view food as a tool to fuel and sculpt their bodies. Bodybuilders will often alternate between different dietary regimens depending on what their goal is at a particular time. For example, there may be periods where a bodybuilder adopts a high-calorie diet, in which they eat large, high-calorie meals to put on mass (often known as bulking). In other periods, when trying to shed body fat to reveal the fruits of their labor for a bodybuilding show or for the beach, a bodybuilder will cut calories by ingesting smaller portions and with less carbohydrates (often known as cutting). If following a balanced program, this is generally safe. However, the health risks emerge at the extremes of both sides of this equation.
- Extreme Weight Loss: Bodybuilders that bring their calories down to low place themselves at risk. This is particularly true when they’re water deprived.
- Extreme Weight Gain: Bodybuilders, especially those that eat unhealthy meals in their mass-gaining efforts, may balloon up with not just muscle, but high levels of fat. This can pose health risks – it’s not unusual for a 5’10” bodybuilder to get over 300 pounds, which can place a tremendous strain on the cardiovascular system over time.
- Eating Disorders: Swinging between both ends of the dietary spectrum between extreme eating and extreme dieting can make it difficult for a person to reach and maintain a dietary homeostasis. Especially when a person has a goal of minimal bodyfat or maximum mass in mind, they are placing themselves in a position to form habits to facilitate both sides of the extreme. Bulking and cutting, in a bodybuilding context, and facilitate eating disorders of binging and deprivation.
For bodybuilders looking to expedite results or take their progress to a level unachievable naturally, they’ll often turn to anabolic steroids.
Many bodybuilders will say, when recounting their experiences with anabolic steroids, that one of the greatest consequences of taking steroids is that afterward, bodybuilding without them is quite boring by comparison. This may seem innocuous, but it isn’t – for people that love bodybuilding, boring training is unacceptable. This psychological dependency can make it quite difficult to break the cycle of using steroids to enhance training and results.
Chemical dependencies can also result from steroid abuse. Like many illicit substances, people who abuse steroids can even experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to break the cycle of abuse. Anabolic steroid withdrawal symptoms include irritability, depression, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, reduced sex drive, and invasive thoughts about using anabolics again. These symptoms can persist to varying degrees for a year or more after discontinuing use.
Diuretics and Insulin
Steroids aren’t the only chemicals that bodybuilders may abuse in the pursuit of an extremely muscular, dry, “shrink-wrapped” appearance. Abuse of diuretics and insulin have emerged over the past couple of decades, and they each come with their own risks.
Diuretics cause an individual to expel excess water – when abused, diuretics can lead to extreme dehydration, kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia, heart palpitations, or even death.
Insulin, on the other hand, may be abused in order to maximize the amount of glucose that is driven into cells. Insulin abuse is extremely dangerous – it can have consequences for many bodily systems, including the endocrine, cardiovascular, and immune systems.
Body Dysmorphia, or “Bigorexia”
Body dysmorphia is when what a person’s perception of what they see in the mirror doesn’t correspond with reality. Body dysmorphic disorders aren’t limited to bodybuilding – they can be contributing factors for anorexia, bulimic and depressive disorders for people that have never touched a barbell. However, since the basis of bodybuilding is body transformation and control of physical appearance, bodybuilders are at risk for developing a dysmorphic disorder.
In recent years, the term “Bigorexia” has been coined to describe the disorder opposite of anorexia – rather than never being small enough, some bodybuilders feel they can never be big enough, hence the term, Bigorexia.
The Effects of Social Expectations
Addiction is often about being caught in a cycle that is difficult to break. Bodybuilders often become known within their social circles as big and muscular, and this becomes a part of their identity. Because of this, there can be enormous social pressure to maintain that appearance.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for a bodybuilder to discontinue steroid use and become slightly less extreme in their dieting, only to begin receiving off-handed remarks from friends such as “You’re looking small!” or “You’re getting soft!” While their friends may only mean this jokingly, the psychological repercussions for the bodybuilder can be profound. Even these small remarks can reignite dysmorphic thinking and the inclination to re-engage in extreme behaviors.
Everything In Balance
To be clear, this is not a condemnation of bodybuilding, but rather an assessment of the potential pitfalls that can result from taking specific aspects of the discipline to the extreme. Bodybuilding can be an extremely beneficial lifestyle choice when taken on as a discipline of healthy eating, resistance training, and cardiovascular exercise.