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A brief look at body building dependence

In a fairly recent review of 11 different addictive behaviours—that I co-wrote with Dr Steve Sussman and Nadra Lisha (University of Southern California)—we estimated the prevalence of exercise addiction in the general population to be close to 3%. This figure is even higher in research I have carried out into certain sub-groups of people such as ultra-marathon runners and sport science students. Today’s blog briefly examines exercise dependence among another particular sub-group of people that may experience elevated rates of exercise addiction and dependence—namely, body builders.

Exercise dependence has been defined by Dr Heather Hausenblas (University of Florida, USA) and Dr Danielle Symons Downs (Pennsylvania State University, USA) as ‘‘a craving for exercise that results in uncontrollable excessive physical activity and manifests in physiological symptoms, psychological symptoms, or both.’’ However, in the course of assessment of exercise addiction, several incongruent results have emerged. The most likely reason may be connected to two issues, namely (i) the instrument used in assessment of exercise addiction/dependence, and (ii) the target population studied (including the fact that sample sizes are typically very small compared with other studies of other potentially addictive behaviors).

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One of the more interesting observations surrounding exercise addiction and dependence among body builders concerns their thoughts around body image and whether this may play a role in the development of the addiction. From a body image perspective, researchers have suggested that males in western society have developed significant body concerns that cause them to generate a ‘drive for muscularity’ to meet a perceived high societal standard for a muscular physique. Not all bodybuilders engage in the activity purely to develop a hyper-muscular physique. However, those who are bodybuilding to overcome weaknesses in self-esteem and body image, may be more susceptible to excessive exercise routines and obsessive eating disturbances. However, to date, the research findings are somewhat inconclusive.

There are several instruments available for assessing exercise addiction. However, they are either rarely adopted in research or are aimed at a specific form of physical activity, such as bodybuilding. For instance, the Bodybuilding Dependency Scale (BDS) was developed by Dr Dave Smith (University of Chester) specifically to assess compulsive training in bodybuilding and weightlifting and has been validated in a number of his subsequent studies. The BDS comprises three sub-scales: (i) social dependence (the need to be in the gym), (ii) training dependence (compulsion to train), and (iii) mastery dependence (the need to control training).

Dr Treven Pickett and colleagues at the Virginia Consortium Programme (Virginia Beach, USA) reported that ‘competitive bodybuilders’ and ‘non-competitive weight trainers’ were both more ‘appearance-invested’ than active athletic controls that didn’t lift weights. Other research studies have found bodybuilders have significantly higher concerns regarding the size and shape of their physique than power lifters. However, none of these studies have utilized validated ‘desire for masculinity’ measures. Furthermore, few studies have examined the relationship between exercise dependence and desire for masculinity in male exercisers although correlations have been found between exercise dependence with muscle-oriented body image and muscularity-related behaviors on the Drive for Muscularity Scale.

Up until recently, it was unclear whether there were any differences in the prevalence of exercise dependence among different types of weight lifters (such as bodybuilders, power lifters, and fitness lifters) even though there is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that these distinct groups have different motives for weight lifting. One of the best studies examining this issue was carried out by Dr Bruce Hale and colleagues (Kinesiology Department, Penn State-Berks, USA). They examined 146 weight lifters (59 bodybuilders, 47 power lifters, and 40 fitness lifters) on the Exercise Dependence Scale (EDS), the Bodybuilding Dependence Scale (BDS), and the Drive for Muscularity Scale (DMS). Results showed that bodybuilders and power lifters were significantly higher than fitness lifters on EDS and BDS scales. In contrast, power lifters were found to be significantly higher on DMS than bodybuilders. They claim that their results suggest that exercise dependence may be directly related to the drive for muscularity. Just to complicate things even further, there are some recent studies that suggest muscle dysmorphia—a pathological preoccupation with muscularity—may also be linked to exercise dependence (but that will have to wait for another blog!).

References and further reading

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence, Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 631-646.

Allegre, B., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Individual factors and the context of physical activity in exercise dependence: A prospective study of ‘ultra-marathoners’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 233-243.

Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, 47, 403-417. 

Blaydon, M.J., Lindner, K.J. & Kerr, J.H. (2002). Meta-motivational characteristics of eating-disordered and exercise-dependent triathletes: An application of reversal theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 3, 223-236.

Hale, B.D, Roth, A.D., DeLong, R.E. & Briggs, M.S. (2010). Exercise dependence and the drive for muscularity in male bodybuilders, power lifters, and fitness lifters. Body Image, 7, 234-239.

Chittester, N.I., & Hausenblas, H.A. (2009). Correlates of the drive for muscularity: The role of anthropometric measures and psychological factors. Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 872-877.

Hausenblas, H.A., & Downs, D. S. (2002a). Exercise dependence: A systematic review. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 3(2), 89-123.

McCreary, D.R., Sasse, D.K., Saucier, D. & Dorsch, K.D. (2004). Measuring the drive for muscularity: Factorial validity of the Drive for Muscularity Scale in men and women. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 5, 49-58.

Pickett, T.C., Lewis, R.J. & Cash, T.F. (2005). Men, muscles, and body image: Comparisons of competitive bodybuilders, weight trainers, and athletically active controls. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39, 217-222.

Smith, D.K., & Hale, B.D. (2004). Validity and factor structure of the bodybuilding dependence scale. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 38, 177-181.

Smith, D.K., & Hale, B.D. (2005). Exercise-dependence in body- builders: Antecedents and reliability of measurement. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 45, 401-408.

Smith, D.K., Hale, B.D., & Collins, D. (1998). Measurement of exercise dependence in bodybuilders. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 38, 66-74.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Exercise addiction in British sport science students. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 25-28.

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).


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