Have you ever heard of bigorexia? This term, which was initially used in the world of bodybuilding, could concern all physical and sports activities. More known in Europe, particularly in France, bigorexia (also called addiction to sport, sportoolism or reverse anorexia) was recognized in 2011 by the World Health Organization as being part of behavioral dependencies (e.g. gambling addiction, video game addiction, compulsive shopping, food addiction, sexual and emotional dependence).
This form of dependence is associated with eating disorders and muscle dysmorphism without being limited to it. The specialists at the Centre d’Études et de Recherches en Psychopathologie (Toulouse, France) proposed the following definition: “bigorexia is an irrepressible and compulsive need to practice regularly and intensively one or more physical and sports activities in order to obtain immediate gratification, despite the long-term negative consequences on physical, psychological and social health.”
Curious paradox since the benefits of daily physical activity have been widely described in the literature (Lubans et al., 2016; Warburton & Bredin, 2017). But how can we explain that such a positive thing can become harmful to health? On the one hand, when physical activity interferes with social functioning by taking precedence over all other spheres of life (family, spouse, children, work, friends, etc.). On the other hand, when you stop listening to your body while continuing to train although exhausted, sick or injured. Thus, bigorexia is harmful since it leads to exercise compulsively and beyond the physical, physiological and psychological limits of the organism.
Obviously, not all people who practice sport intensively do not develop an addiction. To talk about sport dependence, several manifestations must be observed. According to Leone et al. (2005), people with bigorexia generally feel bad, or even depressed, if they do not participate in physical activity every day. In addition, they organize and plan all their days based on their physical activity. Furthermore, they find that they never train enough and are obsessed with their weight and performance. Finally, according to the Association Santé et Environnement France (ASEF), bigorexia can present health risks, beyond professional, family and psychological problems such as general exhaustion, muscle tears, tendon damage, fractured bones and infarction.
Like all addictions, the causes associated with the development of bigorexia are multiple and complex. On the one hand, as the ASEF explains, “bigorexia can have a psychological origin: need to increase self-esteem, fill an emotional void or modify the bodily appearance which is underestimated”. On the other hand, physical activity generates a lot of dopamine and endorphin, as do drug use and intercourse. These molecules act as neurotransmitters in the brain and are associated with feelings of pleasure as well as relief from pain and stress. These neurotransmitters are released by our brain during experiences that it associates with pleasure, which is itself known to play a role in dependence processes.
Another explanation to consider lies in the evolution of our contemporary western society which bombards us with unrealistic images and bodily ideals conveyed by media in our daily lives. This idealized image of the body contributes to develop and maintain dissatisfaction with our body image, both for men and women. The cult of thinness being a fairly well-known reality, the pressure for men to change their appearance in order to become more muscular is also pointed out. Also, the increased appreciation of individual sporting exploits conducive to exceeding one’s limits could also cause excessive training to reach new heights.
In short, as you can see, the causes behind bigorexia are multiple and the source of debates, but one fact remains, the consequences of this dependence are very real, and we must focus on them.
How do we overcome it?
Now that we know more about bigorexia, what can we do to address this addiction? The first step towards wellness requires an awareness where speaking is essential. In this regard, discussing, asking questions, starting work with a therapist specializing in cognitive and behavioral therapies or a sport psychologist is advised. Thus, a diagnosis can be made, and a process started.
People who wonder about their own relationship to physical activity or who feel concerned should not hesitate to talk to their doctor or any other health and / or social services professional. Do not hesitate to contact SportAide who could be a first step towards a discussion, a listening or even an awareness on this subject.
“bigorexia is an irrepressible and compulsive need to practice regularly and intensively one or more physical and sports activities in order to obtain immediate gratification, despite the long-term negative consequences on physical, psychological and social health”