Megarexia: When Exercise & Training Become A Dangerous Obsession

You love to workout, but have your gains gone too far? We asked PT Amanda Moroney how to spot the signs of disordered exercising.

Woman weight training

While some of us can’t quite muster the energy to get off the couch, there are others who are hiding a debilitating addiction to exercise, and sadly it’s on the rise. “Megarexia or muscle dysmorphia, is a less well known disorder than anorexia or bulimia but with equally debilitating consequences,” explains Recalibrated Bodies personal trainer Amanda Moroney. In short, it’s an obsession with building muscle and a ripped appearance, and though it’s typically more common among men, it’s certainly becoming more prevalent amongst women too.

“I was obsessed with ‘my gains’,” says Ciara, 29. “I didn’t see what I was doing at the time as that big of a deal to be honest. I was lifting heavy weights six, sometimes even seven days a week, with very little time for rest or recovery. It was only when my personal life began to suffer that I even considered I might have a problem. Friends complained that they never saw me anymore, and my family were bored of hearing how many KGs I’d benched that day. Eventually, it was an injury that finally put my training to a halt, and it was only with time away from the gym that I could see just how much of an obsession building muscle had actually become.”

While Ciara was able to recognise that her weight training was out of control, in more extreme cases, many avid gym goers turn to anabolic steroid use to further increase their gains. “It becomes especially dangerous when pharmacological drugs are used to increase the amount of muscle mass they carry, even though it’s generally disproportionate to their natural body-frame,” Amanda explains. Long term, steroid abuse in women can lead to a masculisation of the body, such as excessive hair growth and a deepening of the voice, as well as more serious effects like liver cancer and heart attacks.

If you’re constantly comparing yourself to your gym buddy, critiquing your body or feeling low or depressed, a muscle dysphoria issue may be present.

So how can you tell if you or someone you care about may have any unhealthy addiction to gaining? “Regardless of whether you are over-training or training to put on significant size, a training disorder can be spotted by muscle dysphoric signs such as the need to train every day, workouts taking priority over social events, habitual exercise despite pain or injury, and feelings of extreme upset of anger by a missed workout,” says Amanda. “If you’re constantly comparing yourself to your gym buddy, critiquing your body or feeling low or depressed, a muscle dysphoria issue may be present.”

To date, although Megarexia bears all the hallmarks of a body image disorder, medically it isn’t recognised as such, so treatment is limited. Currently a doctor may order a course of antidepressants or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sessions to help address underlying self esteem issues.

Outside of the doctor’s office, Amanda recommends that over time it may help to re-evaluate your goals and set realistic targets. “Use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed) goal-setting principles,” she suggests. “They allow for progressive overload [the gradual increase of stress during training] without the emphasis on muscular obsession.”

If you or someone you know is affected by Megarexia or Muscle Dysmorphia contact Body, The Eating Disorders Association Of Ireland.