Exercise Disorders

There are two types of exercise disorders: compulsive and ‘bigorexia’ (also known as ‘Muscle Dysmorphia’). Please read both definitions as there are some overlaps between the two.

What you must keep in mind with anyone who is a compulsive exerciser or ‘bigorexic’ will take exercise to the extreme and in many cases push themselves to a limit, which is beyond healthy and often beyond their own physical abilities but they cannot resist the compulsion. This can result in a hatred of exercise even though they cannot stop.

Although, they are not considered eating disorders themselves compulsive exercise and bigorexia share the same characteristics and need urgent professional help.

Compulsive exercise

This is usually a problem encountered with people who have anorexia and bulimia. What makes exercise ‘compulsive’ is when someone will spend many hours a day exercising several days a week, if not every day. They cannot feel good about themselves and the day may be viewed as ruined if they do not reach their goal which increases as they become driven to achieve more each time.

Usual modes of over exercising include excessive running and spending long periods at the gym. What makes compulsive exercise different to bigorexia is that compulsive exercisers will spend many hours aiming to lose calories in order to loose weight. It is a common behaviour amongst suffererers of anorexia and bulimia.

General signs: obsessively exercising for hours most days; secrecy; increasingly bothered by weight/size; ambitious fitness targets; cancelling social events to train; refusing to take time off despite injury; mood swings and the inability to eat if they have not achieved their exercise goal.


Basically, the reverse of anorexia. Instead of looking in a mirror and seeing themselves as fat, men see a puny shape – even if they appear well built to others. This distorted image means that they are obsessed with becoming muscular and are never happy, whatever size they achieve.

Their preoccupation with muscle results in compulsive exercise and weight training, even when they are injured. They may sacrifice social events and relationships, work responsibilities and family life to complete a rigid exercise regime. Some men may resort to using illegal steroids or other muscle building medications or products, even though they may be fully aware of the dangerous potential consequences. This behaviour is a result of low self esteem and lack of confidence which is partly fostered by the media and magazines promoting the percieved perfect image.

What is happening?

Going to the gym most days is a good thing, but training hard to the point of excess can cause a multitude of different health problems. In effect, compulsive exercise can lead to similar problems seen in anorexia. If someone is anorexic or bulimic and is using compulsive exercise as a way of compensating for their behaviours this is using up essential calories, which are needed to carry out the simplest functions – even sleeping. When the body is exhausted of calories this can dramatically slow down the systems in the body.

Bigorexia is equally damaging (as outlined above) and if a sufferer does not get adequate rest this can be counter productive for them achieving what they want. Using steroids puts strain on the heart and can lead to heart failure.

General signs: eating more to get bulkier – especially meat and fish – and drinking daily protein drinks; obsessively exercising or weightlifting for hours a day; cancelling social events with family and friends to train; refusing to take time off from gym sessions despite illness or injury; insisting he’s puny when actually he is very muscular; uncharacteristic mood swings – can be a symptom of steroid abuse

Some ‘Bigorexics’ may use steroids to gain size. Some of the side effects of steroid abuse are: small red spots on the body, especially shoulders and back; mood swings, including anger, aggression and depression; hearing / seeing things that are not there (delusion); extreme feelings of mistrust / fear (paranoia); excessive growth of breast tissue; thinning of the hair on the head and receding hairline; jaundice and yellowing of the skin (liver damage); joint pain increasing risk of injury; hunger shifts (increased /lessened or lost appetite); disrupted sleep patterns and insomnia; dizziness, trembling, nausea and vomiting; rapid weight gain and / or increased muscle size; high blood pressure (damaging blood vessels over time); urinary problems / discolouration of pee; stumped growth / shortened height; shrinking of the testicles; increased risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

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