© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bigorexia - Complusive Weighttraining in Men

Two Ohio State University students are working out at RPAC, OSU's half-million square-foot fitness center. One is doing bench presses while his partner urges him on.

Spending time at the gym is now routine for many college students. But when working out becomes obsessive, taking precedence over attending class or studying for an exam, it can be a sign of a psychological disorder. Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder, sometimes called Bigorexia, is the compulsion to get bigger by gaining muscle. For those who have it, there's a disconnect between mind and body. Penny Winkle, a licensed independent social worker, counsels students with eating disorders at OSU.

"People have body image distortions so that they don't have a realistic idea of what their body looks like," Winkle says. "That's gone. Their brain just stops giving them the right perception of what they see when they look in the mirror."

Winkle says media images and gender stereotypes are constantly bombarding girls and boys who may have struggled with self-image issues from the time they were 11 or 12. She estimates that more than 80 percent of women have struggled with how their bodies look. The number is smaller in men and harder to quantify.

"It's a more difficult statistic for men but we know that one in every six persons who presents for an eating disorder is male," Winkle says. And we know that's probably an underrepresented because there is still more stigmatization for men presenting for body image issues."

At OSU's RPAC, women gravitate to Cardio Canyon where they burn fat on elliptical machines and treadmills. Men on the other hand overwhelmingly pack the free-weight and weight machine areas. But a workout at the gym might only reinforce the perceived need for a bigger body.

"When you look at yourself you have a lot of disdain for what you're seeing and you have a representation in your head of what you should be that you're not," Winkle says. "So when men go to the gym they see well defined muscles and they think that's what they need to have."

Emily Cooper, a physician and medical director of Seattle Performance Medicine, says Bigorexia is sometimes traced to abnormalities in the brain.

"There are a lot of chemical imbalances in these patients and if you were to look at brain scans there are areas of the brain that become hyper-functioning and other areas that are not functioning adequately," Cooper says.

Though men with Bigorexia might only be 1 or 2 percent of the general population, Cooper says their numbers are probably growing.

"In our society we always think that it's just females who are affected and that's absolutely not true," Cooper says. "Men are becoming more and more obsessed with their bodies."

Patients in Cooper's Seattle clinic receive treatment that might include therapy, drugs and nutrition.