Bigorexia: Why being addicted to sport is dangerous for your health?


Physical and mental health are endangered in pathological sport. Learn in this article why being addicted to sport is dangerous for your health?

Table of contents

Practicing physical activity is beneficial for the body and the mind: better shape, less stress, quality sleep... A source of pleasure, sport contributes to a balanced lifestyle.

However, for some people, exerting themselves and going beyond their limits becomes an obsessive need.

Described in the 1970s as a “positive addiction”, bigorexia is an addiction with deleterious consequences. This article explains how being addicted to sport is dangerous for your health.

Man who works out
Man who works out

What is bigorexia? (Definition)

Bigorexia is a sports addiction that is part of behavioral addictions. It is an excessive sports practice, repeated but unsuitable. This compulsive need pushes the person to follow, in an intensive way, one, or even several, physical activities in order to derive immediate benefits despite the negative consequences on the long term.

Behind this addiction to sport hides a preoccupation that is pathological: keeping a slim, muscular, perfect body.

Like other addictions, such as sex addiction for example, bigorexia is a disease recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) since 2011. Bigorexia sets in insidiously, usually over a year. To talk about it, we also use the terms “spoortolism” or addiction to effort .

Affecting high-level athletes as well as the amateur community, this pathology can appear in all practices that are intended to be intense and repeated: from daily running to marathons, from cardio at home to weight training machines in room…

Many people exercise every day, yet not everyone develops an addiction to physical activity. Indeed, the causes of this disorder are multifactorial and not everyone is equal in this regard.

  • Genetic background,
  • emotional shocks, and
  • low self-esteem influence the risk of occurrence.

Sport is no longer a pleasure: it becomes an obsessive need. Constraining, it often integrates a daily routine and is practiced several times a day.

Good to know: Sports addiction begins with a desire for pleasure and disinhibition, reinforced by chemical boosters and excessive exercise. The compulsive and addictive dimension to the gesture is frequent: through recurrent training, the body gets used to the movements. A ritualization is then born, with a form of obsessive repetition of the gestural practice.

What are the dangers of bigorexia?

Being addicted to sport is dangerous for health: bigorexia has physical, psychological and social consequences: the repercussions do not only affect the body, but also impact the mental health of the individual, which depends in particular on his relationships and emotional well-being.

Being addicted to sport is dangerous for your health because:

  1. Your body breaks down and doesn't always repair itself
  2. Additional disorders specific to women appear
  3. The addicted brain demands its dose of sport
  4. Sports addiction leads to an obsession with body image
  5. Muscular dysmorphism occurs
  6. Eating disorders develop
  7. Bigorexia cuts you off from your social relationships
  8. Bigorexia creates suffering and psychic disorders
  9. It leads to substance abuse
  10. It promotes constant danger

Danger 1: Your body breaks down and doesn't always repair itself

Sports addicts are attracted to certain disciplines. Endurance sports (running, trail running, cycling) and extreme sports require strong commitment and continuous performance improvement.

While a balanced regular practice (less than eight hours per week) brings significant health benefits, excessive sport causes a reduction in life expectancy.

Generalized physical exhaustion, muscle tears, tendon damage: the somatic consequences of bigorexia are not to be ignored. They can, moreover, be fatal, because the cardiovascular risk increases up to the infarction.

As an addiction, bigorexia causes the person to continue the behavior despite the negative repercussions. This disorder puts the body at risk in two ways:

  1. By dint of pushing back one's own limits, always going stronger, further
  2. By continuing to practice even when injured: in fact, these athletes then fall back on other sports or on another part of the body.

In addition, bigorexic people generally have "hard-line" temperaments: impossible for them not to pursue their goals to perfection (even if it will always be postponed).

Bigorexia leads to sometimes irreversible injuries. This disease takes all the space over other activities and to obtain the best performance, individuals come to neglect:

  • Their recovery time: necessary between two training sessions, it is rarely respected, in particular because the sessions sometimes take place several times a day;
  • Their sleep: they cut where they can in order to gain practice time.

The body is therefore constantly stressed, the muscle does not have time to rebuild itself. As the training programs are intense and heavy, repetitive injuries are common.

With force, early wear of the bones and cartilage sets in causing bone diseases, especially in impact sports. Sprains , osteoarthritis and stress fractures weaken the bones over the long term.

The damage then requires care sessions with specialists or even operations (knee prostheses, for example). Sometimes the pain will remain present for life, despite the interventions.

In some cases, only stopping the practice allows the body to heal, causing forced withdrawal, one of the signs of sports addiction.

Danger 2: additional female-specific disorders appear

Due to excessive exercise, some athletes suffer from menstrual disorders:

  • dysmenorrhea (pain),
  • abundant or spaced periods,
  • delay or total absence of menstruation (amenorrhea).

As a result, osteoporosis develops, causing stress fractures. In prepubertal girls subjected to early intensive training, a shift in menarche appears, impacting growth.

Fertility problems may occur. In the event of pregnancy, the risks are major: developmental delay, repeated miscarriages, fetal distress.

Some intensive practices such as horse riding promote friction and cause vulvo-vaginitis. Shock and propulsion sports sometimes cause stress urinary incontinence.

Finally, trauma to the chest is frequent, which can cause hematomas and subcutaneous abrasions with a risk of calcification.

Good to know: The female athlete triad corresponds to these three points: 1- Menstrual disorders; 2- Low bone mineral density; 3- An energy deficit.

Danger 3: the addicted brain demands its dose

Bigorexia presents behavioral symptoms specific to addictions. The brain plays an important role and the loss of control becomes recurrent.

Under the influence of craving, this cerebral mechanism that pushes to practice compulsively, the bigorexic person includes sport more and more in his daily life and easily exceeds the bar of ten hours per week.

No psychoactive substance here: it is the body itself that produces its own drug during physical exercise. Four neurotransmitters will be involved, promoting the sportsman's ecstasy .

By attaching themselves to receptors, they allow the transmission of messages and information between neurons:

  • Dopamine is present in all addictions: it influences the cerebral reward circuit and affects pleasure, control, motivation and attention.
  • Serotonin has an analgesic role and intervenes on sleep, mood, desire to eat.
  • Endorphin is a natural opiate, painkiller, which induces a euphoric state and promotes relaxation.
  • Adrenaline, the stress hormone, supports the production of effort.

It is therefore this cerebral chemistry , these neurotransmitters and hormones released to excess, with their positive and pleasant impacts, that the person addicted to sport is looking for.

As with substance addiction or gambling addiction, habituation  is present with bigorexia: to achieve the desired effect, the individual must increase effort and push their limits to experience the hoped-for chemical sensations. This increase is gradual and regular.

Counterpart of addiction: withdrawal. It is a symptom specific to all addictive disorders when the person decreases or tries to stop their behaviors related to alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. It is the manifestation of lack by the body.

Painful and difficult to perform without medical support, sports detoxification has consequences:

  • Physical: tremors, headaches, joint and muscle pain…;
  • Psychological: agitation, irritability, anxiety, insomnia...

Addiction to sport therefore does not only impact the body: a fertile part of the addictive terrain takes place in the brain and its reward circuit.

By its symptomatic manifestations, bigorexia seizes all the physical energy and all the mental space of the individual. Difficult then to function otherwise when everything is governed by the brain which demands its drug.

Addiction scales exist, specifically adapted to certain sports such as long-distance running or bodybuilding.

Good to know: The 5C method identifies the five main manifestations of this addiction:

  1. Control: a loss of control is present;
  2. Craving: the need to practice sport is irrepressible;
  3. Compulsion: physical activity is compulsive;
  4. Continuity: use is constant;
  5. Consequences: Negative consequences do not prevent the behavior.

Danger 4: sports addiction leads to an obsession with body image

The behavior of the bigorexic individual becomes obsessive with regard to the body, masses (fat and muscle) and performance. Although the search for chemical well-being plays a role, the primary goal is often the quest for the perfect body.

Make the fat disappear, shape the muscles, manage to reduce your weight: this is often what colors the excessive practice of sport.

Hardliners, pathological athletes constantly covet perfection and the ideal body. The comparisons are numerous and social networks encourage this quest, always pushing to go further, to obtain the most muscular and fit body.

However, the whole life of the bigorexic person no longer rests on this obsession for appearance: everything revolves solely around that.

What reinforces the addiction is the ability she discovers to considerably increase her self-esteem by modeling her body alone. She realizes that she has endurance skills, but also physical skills that will positively impact the image she has of her body.

Thus, it satisfies itself (for a short time, perfection never being achieved enough), while also meeting the expectations of society, which promotes the perfect healthy body. His efforts will be encouraged, applauded and rewarded by an increasingly strict and demanding public (during competitions or on the networks).

Certain practices increase the risk of suffering from obsessive behavior :

  1. Those promoting body image such as gymnastics, dance or synchronized swimming;
  2. Sports requiring weight monitoring (judo, wrestling);
  3. Sports techniques with stereotyped training such as running, cycling or bodybuilding;
  4. Endurance sports such as athletics.

Bigorexia is an addictive practice that aims to be flawless, perfect and recurrent in sport, allowing you to keep control over your image , whether in the ice or in the eyes of others.

But all self-esteem is no longer based on these routine behaviors, on these repetitive gestures. The recognition of peers in this closed circle matters as much as the results, and this lifestyle eventually turns into a way of existing, where nothing else has value.

Sometimes physical changes are exceptional, in the practice of bodybuilding, for example. The body becomes non-standard , sculpted to the extreme and in some cases hides muscular dysmorphism .

Danger 5: Muscle dysmorphia is created

Between worship dedicated to the image of the body and concern for performance, we can find the Adonis complex in bigorexic individuals .

As a consequence of their obsession with the physical , it is characterized by recurring concerns about one's appearance, in addition to excessive sports practice: dressing with great care to enhance oneself, spending a lot of time in front of the mirror at the search for an imperfection (and go into a state of panic if necessary), spend excessively on beauty products...

The fear of the defect, the phobia of a disproportion: dysmorphophobic disorders seem extremely frequent in people with bigorexia.

Body perception is biased, the muscle never swollen enough, the fat always too present. The need to be reassured is constant and ultimately self-esteem is weakened, because it is nourished only temporarily: dissatisfaction with the body constantly taking over.

In order to achieve its goals, the Adonis modifies its diet, even if it means sinking into reverse anorexia.

Danger 6: Eating disorders develop

The association of bigorexia with eating disorders (ED) is frequent. In order to obtain results more quickly, the person modifies his diet, which will create an imbalance: consuming high protein to develop mass or burning fat to slim down, the border with TCAs is sometimes fine.

Behavioral anorexias with bigorexia are possible. Different from "classic" restrictive anorexia nervosa (which consist in depriving oneself of food in order not to gain weight), these are based on the fact of ingesting very specific foods.

In bigorexia, we find reverse anorexia: food is only used to gain muscle mass. Muscles matter more than leanness.

In this muscle dysmorphia, people are never satisfied with the size of their muscles, which are never big enough. They then make every effort to achieve this: milkshakes based on protein powder, consumption of animal meat and excessive dairy products...

As for athletic anorexia, it promotes maintaining a lean weight through endurance sports such as cycling, rollerblading or running. Weight loss is voluntary and is done with the objective of achieving the results set, or even obtaining better ones.

But this is a true TCA which then associates with bigorexia, putting life in danger. Moreover, purgative behaviors such as vomiting can appear in the event of a food crisis, reinforcing the severity of this comorbid disorder.

Overeating healthy and suffering from deficiencies

Bigorexia and orthorexia get along well. Orthorexia is a behavioral disorder whose food mechanics are based solely on “ healthy eating ”: this desire, close to obsession, rejects any food perceived as harmful to health.

The bigorexic individual will manifest this disorder by being selective about what he eats and by exclusively favoring certain foodstuffs such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains or even organic products. He rejects what he considers toxic: fatty and sweet are generally part of it.

Similarly, taking excessive amounts of dietary supplements is common. It's about giving the best to the body. By this drastic selection and these restrictive behaviors, anorexic attitudes are then established or reinforced.

Although orthorexia may be based on scientifically unfounded beliefs, people with bigorexia are generally experts in dietetics, because they know the importance of their nutrition on their sports practice.

Everything is then weighed to the nearest gram and rituals are sometimes put in place (not eating food picked for more than an hour, for example, for fear of losing all its virtues).

To this end, some bigorexic individuals also abandon addictions to harmful substances to help maintain a healthy body: alcohol, tobacco or cannabis. But to this apparent balance, the nutrition adopted is not necessarily better: deficiencies and fragilities are added to a body already subjected to severe test, consequently reinforcing the risk of injury.

Invitations to dinners or restaurants will be declined, so as not to derogate from the strict regime imposed. Food in the lives of pathological athletes occupies a place almost as important as that of sport, even if it encroaches on the rest, especially at mealtimes, and this to the detriment of family relationships.

Danger 7: Bigorexia cuts you off from your social relationships

In the life of the bigorexic person, sport is the most important thing: they will save their social investment on everything else to devote themselves solely to their training. As in any addiction, the invasion of bigorexia in the intimate, even professional sphere, represents one of the most serious repercussions.

Sport and its practice becoming more and more intense , the organization of the schedule is mainly oriented around this. In case of competitions, these are planned excessively in advance, leaving the necessary space for training. These are prioritized in the agenda, every minute is used to successfully exercise.

As a result, other activities are neglected , even those previously appreciated. For example, evening outings will be avoided, in order to save time either to get enough sleep or to train. The circle of friends is reduced, to be composed only of people practicing the same sporting discipline.

As a family, the time spent together is limited and often of poor quality: mood swings and irritability show lack. All the thinking of the bigorexic individual is oriented towards sport: extracting it from it costs him a lot of energy.

Pathological sport encourages egocentrism and impacts romantic relationships : feeling of abandonment in the other, lack of communication and libido disorders weigh on the couple.

At the professional level (or school) the repercussions are not left out: the organization to the minute of the agenda of the bigorexic person leaves him no idle time. She leaves as soon as possible after work, sometimes takes advantage of the lunchtime slot to practice and moves further and further away from her colleagues, hardly ever discusses anything except when her unhealthy passion is mentioned.

By force, when the addiction takes over, the consequences on work or studies can be disastrous: difficulty concentrating, memory problems, irritability, nervousness, delays or even repeated absences in favor of practice.

Separation, divorce, dismissal, disputes, withdrawal: the social cost of bigorexia is not to be neglected and this isolation reinforces the psychological disorders from which sports addicts suffer.

Danger 8: Bigorexia creates suffering and psychic disorders

The search for ever better prowess is generally associated with anxiety disorders: stress and anxieties accompany pathological athletes.

Between failure neurosis , that is, the constant fear of failing and not achieving one's goals, and performance anxiety (the fear of not doing well enough), the mental state of the bigorexic person is subjected to strong pressures on a daily basis.

Sports burnout comes at the end of the line when the weight of practice has become too heavy to bear.

Shame often accompanies the disease, especially if it is singled out by those around you. Lies are then possible, causing guilt and irascibility.

This guilt is reinforced when training sessions are not held, when objectives are neither achieved nor exceeded, or when lifestyle restrictions (in terms of food, for example) are flouted. Irritability and frustration seize the person, but are also felt in the professional sphere and the entourage.

Obsessive -compulsive behaviors sometimes appear, in the form of rituals or mania for cleanliness.

Stopping sport when suffering from bigorexia leads to the same withdrawal syndrome as other addictions. It is also withdrawal that will cause the strongest psychological manifestations and generate intense psychological distress: depression , insomnia, anxiety...

Good to know: Sports addiction usually forms on fertile ground and does not happen by chance. Addictive disorders are a form of adaptation that makes it possible to face difficult times, especially for people who suffer from emotional deprivation. For some, it is necessary to fill the thought or emotional void. Thus sport becomes a narcotic relieving physical or psychological distress. It extinguishes painful reflections and anesthetizes feelings. Finally, for others, it helps to fight against boredom, loneliness or passivity.

Danger 9: it leads to substance use

Anabolic steroids (hormonal derivatives of testosterone) are very dangerous, although their consequences are generally avoided by athletes in view of their powerful effectiveness.

Doping products are used to artificially improve performance, both physical and mental. Corticosteroids, EPO or bronchodilator drugs, there are many substances to “be sure” during competitions.

Steroids also help achieve strong muscle mass goals. But they induce more or less serious adverse effects: acne, testicular regression, cancers, heart disease and psychiatric disorders. In addition, steroids increase the risk of opiate addiction.

Since pathological sport is the cause of multiple injuries that can jeopardize the activity, the use of pain-relieving substances is not uncommon. Drugs (such as GHB) provide well-being and analgesic relief and therefore help to overcome the suffering experienced by the body. However, they have an extremely powerful addictive potential.

The risk of becoming addicted is to be underlined, especially since polydrug use promotes the more rapid and intense appearance of an addiction disorder. The ingestion of psychoactive substances leads to consequences during use, going as far as intoxication, but also in the long term, with increased repercussions in particular on cognitive abilities.

Danger 10: It promotes constant endangerment

Taking doping products, or even drugs, is sometimes done to deal with a phobia of inaction . This fear of passivity pushes the individual to self-excite by resorting to certain psychoactive substances. Moreover, young people who practice sport intensively consume more doping products and drugs than others.

However, the taking of substances is not without consequences and notably reinforces hetero-aggressive behavior.

Studies have shown that excessive sport (more than eight hours per week) in men makes them more aggressive and therefore more likely to fight and put themselves in danger .

People who suffer from bigorexia generally seek thrills and always go the extra mile to avoid boredom. Even injured, they will continue to practice, causing irreversible deleterious consequences. These individuals feel invulnerable and think that they control their body in its entirety: yet, its needs are absolutely not heard.

Not listening to the pain signals they send back sometimes leads them to act by behaviors close to the ordeal. The body is subjected to excessive physical rituals to satisfy the obsessive invasion of the disease, until it reaches a point of no return. Some activities also openly value this pain, such as bodybuilding or classical dance.

Bottom line

Physical and mental health are endangered in pathological sport.

With a society that encourages the adoption of “healthy” attitudes, resorting to excessive physical activity does not necessarily alert people with bigorexics.

However, early treatment promotes healing. It is often the injury that leads to the diagnosis of this addiction.

It is possible to treat bigorexia: it is a question of finding balance in practice and the pleasure that goes with it, without necessarily having to give up sport.

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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative, I have no authority to make a diagnosis or recommend treatment. I invite you to visit a psychologist to treat your particular case.