Young men crumbling under the weight of muscle mania
Dieting, steroids, binge drinking and depression dog young men who are obsessed with their muscles
Training to be a hulk like Charles Atlas has its own hazards. Musclebound youngsters who concentrate only on bulking up at the gym and strutting their stuff at bodybuilding competitions are more likely to have problems with weekend binge drinking, dieting, steroid use and depression than most men aged 18 to 32.
They are also four times more likely to use legal and illegal supplements, and anabolic steroids, a new study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Harvard University has found.
These drugs are the most common doping offences in SA sport. Out of 46 anti-doping violations in the last year, 11 were detected at a single bodybuilding competition, according to the SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport 2017/18 report.
The international research teams found more than a third of young men had dieted in the past year despite not being obese.
This is the first study to investigate men’s relationship to their bodies and muscles internationally. It found body image disorders to be more common than believed.
Ten percent of the 2,460 men thought “they were too fat and want to be thinner”.
“I want the same body as Ronaldo”; “I’m thinking of taking anabolic steroids”; “I don’t think my chest is muscular enough”; and “I feel guilty if I miss a workout”, the American participants said.
Norwegian Professor Trine Tetlie Eik-Nes, from the Norwegian Neuromedicine and Movement Science department, said: “The problem arises when the bodies of professional athletes like Ronaldo become the ideal for regular young men who have jobs, studies and family.
“Training has to be your full-time job if you want to look like Ronaldo. He belongs to one in a thousand of the world’s population who make their living from sports. Some people train as if they were on the national team, but they’re only exercisers.”
Exercise is healthy, but when training takes over people’s lives it becomes a problem, she noted.
Eikl-Nes said young men’s fixation on muscles had gone undetected in the past because studies on body image asked them about being thin – the commonly desired image for young girls – when the male equivalent was having big muscles.
“Girls are supposed to be thin and have small waistlines,” she said. “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.
“Previous studies have shown that boys who are overweight, or thin and lanky, are at greatest risk of developing body image disorders as young men,” she observed.
Muscles for young men become like makeup for girls – to enhance looks.
“They’re not building their strength to ski faster, or to get better at football or to improve their health.
“They’re only exercising to build their muscles, without the training having anything to do with muscle function. That’s a big difference,” she said.
Young men were not more or less satisfied with their bodies if they were highly educated, the report, published on Thursday in the International Journal for Eating Disorders, suggested.
“This drive for muscularity could be a sign that young men don’t have mastery over their lives … in simple terms, you could say that girls vomit, while boys are much more preoccupied with exercising than normal,” said Eik-Nes.
“Parents’ alarm bells should go off if they have a youngster who’s at the gym every day, who just wants to eat chicken and broccoli and who consumes protein shakes or supplements all the time.”
This is hard work, as Dr Frank-N-Furter sings in sci-fi musical Rocky Horror Picture Show: “He’ll eat nutritious, high protein/And swallow raw eggs. Try to build up his shoulders/His chest, arms and legs./ Such an effort/If he only knew of my plan/In just seven days I can make you a man.”
His lab-made Adonis may be light years away from reality, but being too focused on muscled perfection is already hurting young men of this generation.