Men obsessed with building muscle mass have higher mental health risks

They're at a higher risk for depression, weekend binge drinking, and unnecessary dieting.

Palestinian participants flex their muscles during a bodybuilding competition in Gaza city on October 28, 2016. / AFP / MOHAMMED ABED (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Body dysmorphia is not limited to women, a new study from Norway and Cambridge shows.
  • Young men that focus on building muscle are at risk for a host of mental and physical health problems.
  • Selfie culture is not helping the growing number of teens that are anxious and depressed.

Self-obsession comes at a heavy cost. A recent study published in Open Psychology Journal notes that excessive selfies on social media is associated with an increase in narcissism. The study authors believe it's not a chicken-or-egg scenario: constant self-referential posts increase one's love of self. Then again, as we all know, such self-love is often a mask for self-loathing, often under guise of "confidence."

Such self-loathing is often rooted in physical form. The neurosis might be mental, but focusing on the perceived shortcomings of one's body is an all-too-common road to depression and anxiety. And there are few arenas for such displays as the gym. Fitness selfies are one of the most common forms of self-promotion—and self-anxiety, it turns out.

A new study from researchers at Norwegian University for Science and Technology and Harvard, published in International Journal of Eating Disorders, discovered that boys and young men obsessed with muscle mass are at higher risk for depression, weekend binge drinking, steroid usage, and, as the journal name suggests, eating disorders.

Unlike girls and young women, whose eating disorders often manifest in anorexia or bulimia, men are more specific with the supplements and types of food they consume: the keto diet, supplements, mounds of protein powder, an excessive percentage of fats. As lead author Trine Tetlie Eik-Nes says,

"Girls are supposed to be thin and have small waistlines. Boys should have wide shoulders and big muscles. Those are the narrow ideals that young people grow up with today. It turns out that this unrealistic body image is as challenging for men as for women."

Men simply mask it differently. The researchers tracked 2,460 males, aged 18-32, by using data from the large-scale Growing Up Today Study (GUTS) that was initiated in 1996 and collects information from over 26,000 participants every year. Interestingly, they noticed obsession with muscle mass was more prevalent in gay and bisexual men than their heterosexual counterparts.

Depression seems to be the most common effect of body dissatisfaction. The incessant drive to building muscle mass is the response; as with many obsessions, one's muscles can never be large enough. That is why just over one-fifth of those studied used dietary supplements, leading to potential use of illegal steroids—and, of course, side effects of anabolic steroid usage, including extreme irritability, jealousy, impaired judgment, baldness, and sexual problems, can also lead to depression, creating a vicious cycle.

Eik-Nes points out that exercise itself isn't the problem. We live in a fitness culture; health is strongly correlated with regular movement. Yet she offers warning signs for parents:

Parents' alarm bells should go off if they have a youngster who's at the gym everyday, who just wants to eat chicken and broccoli and who consumes protein shakes or supplements all the time. If their whole world is about their workouts, parents should take the time to talk with them – for example, by asking questions about what they're actually training for.

An Iranian man wearing a cross necklace flexes his muscles while posing for a picture at a modern gym in the capital Tehran on February 27, 2018. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

As reported last year by the NY Times, more teens than ever are suffering from depression and anxiety. There is no singular answer to this dilemma. Yes, it's an obsession with our devices, and the fractured political divide, and a growing economic divide fueling further competition, and a questioning of gender norms—and so on. The list is exhaustive.

Questioning gender norms, for one, is important. For too long, men have gotten a pass on body image issues, at least in the media. Women have almost exclusively been discussed when it comes to eating disorders and body dysmorphia—there's even "Snapchat dysmorphia," in which cosmetic surgeries are employed to match filters offered on the app. The line between reality and fantasy has always been blurry, but perhaps never more so than today, when the immediate feedback offered by a photo tool on the screen cannot be replicated in real-time.

Beyond the media, men still suffer in similar ways than women, even if the result is "more" than "less." Eik-Nes says that many of the same so-called feminine issues that would normally come up on a psychologist's couch are being expressed by men. Dissatisfaction is not a gender issue, but a human one. And we fail to forget that it's fluid: being overweight used to signify that you had enough money to eat well. Skinniness was the syndrome at that time.

As long as we constantly stare at ourselves in hopeful and frightened determination, into mirrors and our phones, it's not going to get better. Narcissus only had a murky lake to judge his reflection on. Today we can't escape the selfie syndrome. What's left of our self-esteem is being shattered in the process.

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