Experts warn of the mental weight that comes with lifting weights
This article discusses eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
While gyms shut down during the pandemic, the digital fitness industry grew impressively. Who knew that being stuck inside would remind people of the importance of movement? Now you can do an entire home workout using just your phone and a few pieces of equipment.
Social media has changed not only how people exercise, but it has also brought gym culture into the mainstream — for better or for worse. One side effect of working out that no one talks about is how your social media feed becomes saturated with fitness-related content.
Whether you’re scrolling Instagram, trolling TikTok, or watching your favourite fitness YouTuber, chances are you’re being constantly exposed to people with chiselled abs, bulging muscles, and next to no body fat.
This can lead to a warped perception of what is normal or expected of one’s physique. The average viewer may start to think that they are weird for not looking like a superhero, when in reality the person on the screen in front of them is an anomaly. At times, it can feel like a direct competition of who looks best. Somewhere along the way, going to the gym stopped having anything to do with living a healthy lifestyle.
With the rise of digital fitness, people are more vulnerable to body dysmorphia, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders than ever.
“In the last number of decades, researchers have identified that appearance-based norms for men have become increasingly muscular,” said Sarah Nutter, a UVic professor who teaches counselling psychology and researches weight stigma, in an interview with the Martlet.
While the internet and social media can be an invaluable source of information for fitness, it can also be quite the opposite. It’s not just professional bodybuilders and models posing and showing off their physiques, it’s anyone with a half-decent six pack and an internet connection.
Instagram doesn’t ask to see your credentials, and TikTok definitely doesn’t check if you’re a certified trainer before you start uploading fitness and lifestyle advice for countless viewers.
“What’s the safety considerations? How frequently should you be doing those exercises?” asked Dr. Jean Buckler, a UVic assistant professor in exercise science, physical health and education. “If you’ve never spoken to an actual certified professional and you’re just getting your information from the internet, you might be taking that information and using it incorrectly.”
It’s easy for instructional fitness videos to receive millions of views on Instagram alone, whether it be explaining form, routines, or diets. The problem is, health and fitness are the opposite of one-size-fits-all.
Aside from the safety concerns that come with taking fitness advice from internet creators, there is another caveat that comes from online fitness content — constantly staring at people with “perfect” physiques can be a slippery slope toward body image issues.
Body dissatisfaction is rampant, especially among adolescents and young adults. One study found that 90 per cent of male students surveyed described themselves as being dissatisfied with their own muscularity.
“It’s unfortunately a really common experience,” said Nutter. “Having a high level of body dissatisfaction is one of the biggest predictors of behaviours that we call disordered eating behaviours. So behaviours that are teetering close to what might cause an eating disorder, but are sort of not quite at that level.”
Less common than body dissatisfaction is the more extreme body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental health disorder that causes you to hyper-fixate on the flaws that you see in your own body. It can cause people to not see an accurate version of themselves when looking in a mirror.
The majority of existing research on disordered eating has focused on the pursuit of thinness, which is a goal mostly seen in women. A disorder that more commonly affects men — and that isn’t often talked about — is muscle dysmorphia.
Muscle dysmorphia, aptly nicknamed “bigorexia,” causes you to see yourself as much smaller and weaker than you actually are. One study found that muscle dysmorphia is more prevalent among bodybuilders compared to other kinds of recreational athletes.
As fitness influencer Joe Fazer said on a podcast, “The day you start lifting is the day you’ll never be satisfied. I’m more insecure about my body now than I was when I was a really skinny guy at 15.”
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most famous bodybuilder in the world, has struggled with his body image. In one magazine interview, he said, “When I look in the mirror, I throw up.”
Body dissatisfaction isn’t anything new, but it has changed alongside the rise of social media. The Tripartite Influence model suggests that there are three main streams of influence that affect one’s body image: parents, peers, and media.
“In the recent decades with the advent and popularity of social media, that influence has definitely shifted away from those more traditional sources, but continues to be the same in terms of the social media being a really dominant influence of appearance culture,” said Nutter.
Exercising obviously isn’t bad for you. In fact, it’s one of the best things you can do for your health overall. Cardiovascular, strength, and mobility training will help you live not only a longer life, but a more enjoyable and healthy one.
“Strength training is something that I think people don’t always realize is a part of the physical activity recommendations for Canadians,” said Buckler.
So if working out is so good for you, what’s the problem with it?
“The real risks come into the why you’re doing it as opposed to the what you’re doing. Because the reason we’re going to the gym can be really positive, to move more and feel better,” said Buckler. “But they can also have that negative connotation too. When we talk about being healthy, are we talking about improving our body’s ability to manage how we process glucose, or are we talking about how we want to be looking?”
While there are possible risks to working out, like injuring or overexerting yourself, the real danger lies in the kitchen. The most effective way to make progress in the gym is to control what you’re consuming. But where is the line between purposeful and disordered eating?
“That’s a really grey area, and a really fine line potentially,” said Nutter, who has similar thoughts to Buckler on the why of working out. “The question I would ask somebody would be ‘what’s the purpose or what’s the goal in the gym?’”
According to Nutter and Buckler, if you’re limiting what you eat and are punishing yourself in the gym just for that perfect “beach body,” it might be time to reassess your goals and intentions. Are you exercising to be healthy or purely for aesthetics?
Contrary to what social media and the entertainment industry might make you believe, having visible and defined abs is not the norm. Fat is essential in the body to help regulate hormones, along with many other functions that help the body run smoothly.
Having your body fat low enough to have visible abs has the potential to be dangerous, especially for women, who naturally have more body fat than men.
People whose body fat percentage drops below the double digits have increased risk for symptoms such as low energy and low bone mineral density. It can also disrupt menstruation or cause it to completely disappear.
And what body fat percentage is typically required for visible abs? Around 10 per cent. Stage-ready bodybuilders will typically cut down to under five per cent. To put that into perspective, you need at least three per cent body fat just to survive.
If you are able to have visible abs with more body fat, then you can thank something that isn’t talked about a lot on social media: genetics.
Your inherited genetics play a major role in many aspects of your life, especially fitness and muscle building capability. Yes, the fitness influencers on social media have put in the work to get where they are, but more than likely their specific genetics have greatly helped them.
It can be incredibly discouraging to see an 18-year-old posing on Instagram with your dream physique only after a few months of lifting, but it’s important to remind yourself that isn’t realistic — or accurate.
“None of that is a representation of people’s real and true lives,” said Buckler. “It’s often easy to miss the fact that that stuff is curated. It’s the right angles, the right lighting.”
Alongside genetics, there is another important factor in play that most influencers don’t discuss — anabolic steroids and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
“There’s only so much that people can achieve naturally when it comes to muscularity, and so I think one potential problem is [the] use of steroids and other substances to enhance muscularity, and there’s physical and mental health consequences that come with that,” said Nutter.
Since using anabolic steroids without a prescription is illegal in many parts of the world, including Canada and the United States, it is difficult to get a realistic idea of just how many people are using them recreationally.
One thing is for sure though, a lot of your favourite fitness influencers didn’t get to where they are just by eating chicken and rice. But why do so many lie about steroid and PED usage?
Admitting that you didn’t achieve your physique naturally can close the doors to many sponsorships and brand deals. It may also jeopardize any courses or programs that person may be selling. At the end of the day, it always comes down to money.
“The day you start lifting is the day you’ll never be satisfied.”
– Joe fazer
“When I talk to my students … about understanding misinformation, what we often talk about is ‘is the person trying to sell you something?’” said Buckler. “On social media, now everyone is trying to sell you themselves. So that creates this complicated problem because you don’t know what their intention is behind their sales.”
There are influencers out there who are open and honest about their steroid and PED usage, but how much better is that really?
It can be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Either admit that you used PEDs to achieve your physique, potentially encouraging others to do the same, or lie and say that you’re all natural, giving unrealistic expectations to your viewers.
Using steroids and PEDs may help you achieve your dream physique, but the side effects can be devastating to your health, far outweighing any instant gratification. The comment section on any fitness related content can be quite concerning. Objectification, misogyny, and a never-ending argument about who is on steroids and who isn’t.
It can be shocking to see the number of young men on social media joking about “going to the dark side” and starting to use steroids to look like their favourite influencers. The worst part is, it’s impossible to know how much of it is actually a joke.
While there are many negative elements to fitness centred social media culture, there are certainly positives too. Many intelligent and honest physical trainers share helpful experience for free. This can help people just starting out in the gym gain knowledge and confidence. There are also plenty of influencers helping promote true body positivity.
“I think we can make choices ourselves,” said Buckler. “You can make conscious decisions to look at people out there that are actively working against that narrative that humans are supposed to look a certain way because humans are not supposed to look a certain way. Humans are supposed to look all sorts of ways, and all bodies are good bodies.”
“How do you have a beach body? Go to the beach.”