In the United States, 20 million women have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their life. So have 10 million men. But when it comes to discussions about body image and weight, men are often left out of the conversation.
Thankfully, more and more research is shedding light on the issues men face. And in the latest round, psychologists from the U.K. and Australia looked into men’s motivations for going to the gym.
Not surprisingly, previous research has found that men who are unhappy with their bodies tend to spend more time working out—but for the new study, published this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers sought to understand how a man’s body image influenced his both conscious and sub-conscious reasons for working out. In short: Why do men really go to the gym?
For the study, researchers asked 100 men to complete a series of questionnaires about body image, body fat, and muscularity. They were asked to rate statements such as, “Seeing my reflection makes me feel badly about my body fat,” and “I think my arms should be more muscular.” They also rated statements reflecting on why they worked out, such as, “I feel under pressure to exercise or work out regularly from people I know well.”
On top of the questionnaires, the men were asked to complete a series of timed “reaction tests” to measure subconscious motivations for gym attendance. In these tests the men were asked to associate positive or negative words about exercising—words like “spontaneous” or “restricted”—with words relating to themselves or to others.
The researchers used these test results, the participants’ body mass index (BMI), and how often they worked out to determine how body image affected men’s workout patterns. For context, the average participant’s BMI was 25.83 (anything above 25 is considered “overweight”) and worked out 2.5 times per week for an hour.
After analyzing all the participants’ results, the authors found that a man’s BMI did not predict his gym attendance. Nor did his individual attitudes toward muscle. Instead, men’s subjective perceptions of their bodies predicted gym attendance. Specifically, men with more negative views of their body fat also reported greater-than-average gym attendance per week. According to the authors, this means that participants’ gym attendance was more affected by their perceptions of body fat rather than their actual body weight.
“Anyone can be affected by what they see online, the social cues images can give, and the popular conceptions of an ‘ideal body image’,” David Keatley, the lead author on the study, said in a press release. “With the recent growth of ‘selfies’ and the return of muscle-bound Hollywood hero icons like Vin Diesel and Hugh Jackman, there’s a real risk that males may be more influenced to attend the gym more regularly and workout to a point where it becomes dangerous or detracts from their wellbeing.”
According to Keatley, based on the reaction tests, most of the participants were not working out for enjoyment but because they felt a pressure to work out in order to lose weight. Their underlying motivation for working out was based on perceived pressure, not choice.
This is concerning given that the type of negative body image that fuels someone to work out can lead to more serious problems—even more serious that being overweight.
“More and more research is showing that males suffer from body dysmorphia, and muscle dysmorphia in particular. It is a growing area of research, and one that I think needs supporting and made public,” Keatley told me over email. “Body dysmorphia and muscle dysmorphia are dangerous conditions in which people become negatively fixated on certain parts of their body and go to extreme lengths to change those parts.
“Males should feel encouraged to speak about their issues openly, and inform research and interventions. This isn’t to say that females should receive less focus; just that males should be considered more, too,” said Keatley.
Perhaps in this one instance, I agree it’s time men’s concerns received some more attention.