How body builders are deluded into pumping iron

Click to follow
Doctors have identified a mirror image of the slimming disease anorexia, in body builders who become obsessed with the bulge of their muscles. Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, examines the dangers of pumping iron.

As slimming was the disease of the 1980s, body building may turn out to be the disease of the 1990s. Musclebound men and women who think they look puny suffer from the same delusion as adolescent girls trying to mimic snake-hipped models who think they look fat. Both have a distorted perception of their own bodies.

American researchers carrying out psychological studies of athletes have identified what they call muscle dysmorphism to describe men and women who become fixated with the shape of their bodies. The obsession leads them to sacrifice career, family and social life to spend hours in the gym. They are too ashamed of their bodies to go the beach or swimming pool, and many take anabolic steroids to build bigger muscles.

Typically they weighed themselves several times a day, repeatedly checked their appearance in mirrors, and wore baggy sweatshirts and trousers even in mid-summer to hide their bodies. Missing even one day of weight-lifting caused enormous distress.

The study was led by Dr Harrison Pope, from McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, who was helped by UK colleagues at the University of Keele in Staffordshire.

Dr Pope, whose findings are published in the journal Psychosomatics, said: "The syndrome looks almost like a reverse form of anorexia nervosa. In a typical case of anorexia nervosa, a woman diets until she is severely underweight. Yet, when she looks at herself in the mirror, she perceives herself as fat. By contrast, in typical muscle dysmorphia, a musclebound body builder will look in the mirror and see himself or herself as out of shape. We think the underlying pathology of the two conditions may be the same, since they are both disorders of body image. The preoccupations simply go in opposite directions."

The researchers say more people may be afflicted by the disorder as weightlifting has increased in popularity. Dr Pope said: "Americans spend about $3m (pounds 1.8m) a year on commercial gym memberships. And this doesn't count the more than a million Americans who work out at home."

In the UK concern about appearance has led some men to seek breast implants to enlarge their pectoral muscles. Customers are mostly body builders making finishing touches. The operation costs pounds 3,500, the same as for a woman, and involves the insertion of silicone implants behind the pectoral muscles, to throw them forward.