Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bodybuilding and the blogosphere: the line between health and obsession (Part I)

A year and a half ago, one of my closest friends from college, Vanessa, took the MCAT and she was unhappy with her score. She decided to make some major lifestyle changes. A lot of those changes were positive. For one, she stopped drinking and partying.

Vanessa also made some changes that appeared healthy, but were actually quite excessive. She began spending 2-3 hours a day at the gym. She has always been tiny (probably 5’1, 105 pounds), but her new focus was on being healthy and strong. On the surface, this seemed like a great goal. She was drinking protein shakes and eating a lot. When I talked to her about it, she explained that her exercise and diet regime had nothing to do with being skinny. She actually wanted to put on weight.

However, when I talked to another friend about it, I began to see a different picture. Vanessa also spent several hours a day on various blogs, forums and fitness sites. She would go to the gym (sometimes twice a day) and also worked out in her living room to the videos on the popular fitness sites like

In addition, she spent most of her money on workout clothes from LuLulemon and expensive workout equipment. Her facebook statuses became a stream of workout tips, gym check-ins, and pictures of her meals with captions like, “Homemade protein cheesecake! 123 grams of protein!”). If we weren’t such good friends, I would have deleted her.

Our relationship began to suffer because we could no longer relate. I was seriously tired of listening to her talk about working out and I’m pretty sure she not interested in listening to me talk about boys and going out.

I wanted to tell her that I thought she was becoming too obsessive. The problem was that, in many ways, she was way healthier than she was before she made these lifestyle changes. Isn’t it better to consume massive amounts of protein rather than drugs and alcohol? Plus, whenever I tried to bring it up, she would bust out lines like, “It’s important to stay away from the scale. It’s not about how much you weigh, it’s about how healthy and strong you feel.”

Yet, I think there is a difference between Vanessa’s behavior and working out simply to be healthy. Her workout regime mirrored those who compulsively workout to become thin.  On the website for the Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), there is a list of signs that indicate when working out shifts from healthy to obsessive:

It interferes with daily activities and relationships.
You believe that bad things will happen if you don’t work out.
You develop a perfectionist attitude toward exercise and your body.
You ignore the signs of illness, injury or fatigue and work out despite them.
You set unattainable goals (miles run, hours worked out, percentage of body fat, etc.)
You ignore friendships or satisfying hobbies in order to exercise.

From what my close friends and I gathered, Vanessa’s behavior was definitely obsessive.  By last December, she had pictures of female bodybuilders around her apartment because she wanted to achieve her new ideal of the “perfect body.” Although it was great that she gave up the partying, she also gave up other activities that she enjoyed.  And while she wasn’t setting an unattainable goal on the scale, she constantly measured her body fat percentage and focused on building muscle. She started cycling through “bulking” and “cutting” phases in an effort to gain weight and then cut the fat.

We had a very close knit group of girlfriends in college. Over the past year, all of us have raised Vanessa about our concerns.  She continues to defend her actions shifting the focus to health and nutrition.

The situation has spiked my interest in bodybuilding and, more specifically, the online bodybuilding community and blogosphere. Vanessa started a blog to measure her progress and has received a great deal of support from other bodybuilders. She also communicates with others on fitness forums.  They exchange protein recipes and information about the latest workout supplements.  While I believe many of these websites can be a positive of source of information for people looking to be healthy and share advice, they can also breed obsessive and dangerous behavior.  Next week I will explore these websites and the line between health and obsession.


CET said...

Thank you for this post. You provided such an interesting look at a type of unhealthy behavior that most people are unaware of (myself included). I can definitely see your dilemma: she has improved her health by exercising and eating healthy, but is doing it in a way that is emotionally unhealthy. While it's hard to say what is healthy versus obsessive, bulking drugs are something that I would definitely consider "over the line." An article from a few months ago, titled "Secret World of Women's Bodybuilding," talks about the importance of anabolic drugs to help women recuperate from long workouts. One of the women interviewed equates bodybuilding to being an alcoholic.

The article can be found here:

Heather said...

Over the summer I started doing crossfit, It's usually a group work out of “constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement." I love it, and have found myself getting so much stronger and confident. However, it is very easy to slip into being obsessed. Some people at the gym focus their lives around eating Paleo ( and going to the gym constantly.

It is a very dangerous path, and hard to steer away from in the intense gym environment. Thanks for the post.