False gain and gym culture

With the recent NHS digital report into mental health (2014), the group most at risk appears to be young people (aged 15-24).

Much has been commented on the perfect storm of academic pressure, student debt, the lack of post qualification paid work, future home ownership, social media and overall competitiveness that is part of capitalist society, but an area that is only relatively recently being recognised is the rise in young men with anxiety around body image.

As always with body ideals, they reflect the times we are in, with weight being a backdrop in all our lives whether wanting to lose or gain.

The increasingly 'fitted' look of the city worker is tight shirt and trousers. For this look, men turn to the gym to pump up. The desired look of course is bulky top, shoulders with the V shape and a small waist. Yet this look is not easy, compare body builder physiques from the 70s and 80s and currently, the ultra-trim 'vacuum' waist has pretty much disappeared for a more tubular or 'bottle' shape. Even at the top professional level, this issue is being debated. The small waist with a bulky top is now seen as retro 'classic'.

Firstly it's probably a lot more difficult to maintain a small waist in our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Going way back we were probably on the move for about 14 hours per day hunting, covering terrain, now many of us have completely turned that around. With office work, travel and home we may be sat down immobile for 14 hours. That is a huge change.

Of course, the science of fitness changes too with a huge arsenal of supplements available. Some supplements can lead to quick and dramatic changes in physique, often through fluid retention in muscle groups. This leads to quick bulk results but simplistically when the supplement is stopped, much of the gain is lost. This can be seen in gyms increasingly with people 'cycling' use of supplements and making big gains only to see the results diminish in the 'off' period.

This can actually exacerbate feelings of inadequacy for young men in particular, who may have been driven to go to the gym in the first place through feelings of inadequacy.

Like most short cuts there is a price to pay. Whilst it is now common to see far more bulked up young physiques, anecdotally I am aware of injury, a sense of 'false gain' and just the feeling that what was achieved can now be lost very quickly.

Gym users sometimes then become disillusioned with the cycle of gain/loss, and it becomes harder to feel OK as one mourns the bulked up shape that was seemingly achieved in a short period of time.

Although not the easiest client group to reach, young men can make good 'gains' psychologically with counselling, to address body anxieties and reach a more authentic and achievable sense of self.

We continue to focus on the 'outside in' to improve ourselves but perhaps we come to realise that it's the other way round that leads to a more stable version of ourselves.

Counselling can help this process and is an alternative workout to the gym.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, NW11 7PH
Written by Graham Allen, Bsc (Hons) Psychology, Dip Psych, PGCE, Reg MBACP (Accred)
London, NW11 7PH

Graham Allen is a counsellor with experience in sport competition, self-esteem and self-identity.

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