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Growing pains for buffed bods


Steve Spinks
7 March 2012
More than 10 per cent of participants in a recent study of weightlifters in gymnasiums in Northern NSW exhibited the symptoms of a psychological disorder that makes them believe that their body is too small or insufficiently muscular, according to research from Southern Cross University.

Johanna Nieuwoudt, a PhD candidate with the School of Health and Human Sciences, completed an Honours thesis based on research in the sweaty world of gyms around the psychological condition known as muscle dysmorphia, which has been nicknamed ‘reverse anorexia’ or ‘manorexia’. Basically put, sufferers have a relentless drive to become more muscular, even if they may be already more muscular than the average person.

The condition, which was first proposed in 1993, has yet to be fully accepted by health authorities but Ms Nieuwoudt is hoping that her research could assist in the correct classification of muscle dysmorphia in the next edition of the American Psychiatric Association-published Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“The condition can be harmful especially when combined with steroid abuse,” Ms Nieuwoudt said.

“There can be musculo-skeletal injuries and people with the condition are more likely to continue to train when they are injured or ill. Their social life suffers and the quest to get bigger can become obsessive, with their relationship with their body overcoming all else.”

The survey of 116 weightlifters in Northern New South Wales showed that young men were more likely to exhibit signs of muscle dysmorphia, as were those with larger biceps and those that used supplements.

Ms Nieuwoudt agreed there was a fine line between being a driven bodybuilder or weightlifter and someone who had become obsessive to the extent of muscle dysmorphia. Researching for proper diagnostic tools and where the disorder sits in the area of psychological disorders will form the basis of her PhD.

“There is a lot of discussion and many researchers cannot agree whether muscle dysmorphia should be categorised as a body dysmorphic disorder or an eating disorder,” she said.

“Limitations in the assessment of muscle dysmorphia do exist and the strength of conclusions drawn in its research may therefore be reduced. But clearly further research is needed into this disorder and a better understanding of the course, outcome, and treatment of muscle dysmorphia would benefit individuals who suffer from this disorder.”

Photo: Johanna Nieuwoudt.