When does an extreme fitness routine turn dangerous?

Fitness. Man in the gym
ByGianluca Russo
Originally Published: 

In today’s thirst-trap obsessed society, where social media influencers can make careers off photos of their physiques, the toxic thinking that muscularity equals masculinity seems more present than ever. To many men, it seems that the higher their muscle mass, the more likely they are to be considered “man enough” and desirable by others. And this problematic mindset — which is heavily influenced by Hollywood, the media, and a historically sexist view of fitness — is causing some men to battle physically harmful workout practices and disordered eating patterns.

With the line between intense but healthy and extreme, dangerous workouts becoming more blurred than ever, though, it can be hard for men to know if they're veering into trouble. “There’s a lot of grey area between casual [fitness]...and having it become problematic,” says Drew Anderson, associate professor of psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY.

While a robust fitness routine is excellent for a person's mental and physical health, there are harms involved in exercising too heavily. And because men are less likely to be vocal about topics like body image, mental health, and insecurities, they are at a higher risk of developing habits that leave lasting, damaging results. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders impact nearly 10 million men in the United States alone. While the causes are not singular, the harm is clear: NEDA states that men battling eating disorders often have a higher mortality rate than women.

Like women, men can deal with issues like exercise addiction, muscular dysmorphia, body dysmorphia, orthorexia, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and more. Yet because these conditions are usually associated solely with women, men struggling with them often go unnoticed. Even more, body image issues, mental health, and eating disorders are often viewed as weaknesses among men, considered “feminine” topics that only women experience. Many men are thus left to struggle in silence, encouraged to deal with their issues internally — which can, in turn, only intensify the negative impacts that their workouts may have.


“When people start a diet, it can spiral quickly. They’ll reach their goal weight and then it’ll become very easy to start starving yourself [to maintain it],” says Adrienne Rose Bitar, postdoctoral associate in history at Cornell University and author of the book Diet and the Disease of Civilization.

While technology is partly to blame, according to Dr. Bitar — “the FitBits, and pedometers and the health tracking apps... can veer into really unhealthy obsessions about your body and the culture," she says — it's the media that's largely at fault. Many publications spread “how to” guides on achieving the physiques of buff Hollywood men who often drastically change their appearances in short periods of time for projects (such as Hugh Jackman for Wolverine, Jason Mamoa for Aquaman, or Chris Pratt for Guardians of the Galaxy). Yet these intense workout regimens are not sustainable or healthy for the common man, who weights about 198 pounds and stands at 5'7", according to the Center for Disease Control.

Still, for men with goals of following in the footsteps of uber-fit celebrities, they can become discouraged when results don’t appear as quickly as they wish. So they push harder, consuming fewer calories and working out for longer and more intense periods of time. “When [their fitness regimen] doesn’t work, their habits progressively get worse," explains Anderson.

Aaron Einhorn, 28, tells Mic that after reading a step-by-step guide on how to achieve Chris Hemsworth’s “god-like” body, he decided to follow a similar workout regimen. Initially, things went well, as he focused on overall health goals rather than numbers. Soon, though, he became swept up in the media’s influence.

“It became unhealthy because it started to dominate my thoughts,” Einhorn recalls. “I stopped working out to push myself and I was instead focused on whether my left shoulder was smaller than my right shoulder and how I could burn my remaining chest and lower back fat."

This obsessive focus began to affect him outside the gym. "I started to get anxious when I went out to dinner with my friends," Einhorn says. "I started to forget how to have a conversation because I was focused on how many calories were on my plate.”

As he fell deeper and deeper into his extreme regimen, he began to feel severe body pain and gained a distorted view of his body. “[Hollywood] teaches men to focus on looks over actual strength or coordination. It also tells us that we can 'get ripped in three weeks' when we can’t. We are asked to look like cartoons,” Einhorn says.


So how can men tell if their fitness regimen is wavering on unhealthy? Firstly, they can examine how their relationship with food has changed since they began intensifying their workouts. Numerous studies show that what you put into your body plays a much larger role in changing your appearance than exercise, especially if your immediate goal is to lose weight. Focusing entirely on your workouts while decreasing your caloric intake and cutting out meals is not a way to get fit.

“You can’t out-train your diet,” notes Mark Fisher, founder of Mark Fisher Fitness, a New York City-based gym with a dedication to body positive fitness. “Physique transformation is driven by diet and not intensity of a workout.”

In addition to food, men can examine the physical effects of their workouts to see if they've gone too far. While soreness after exercise is normal, especially when using a new muscle group, you should not be pushing yourself so hard that you inflict severe physical pain. If this occurs, though, don't ignore the pain and push through it — get help. “A lot of high intensity techniques, when not done in a thoughtful way ... can really do some damage,” says Fisher.

Similarly, it’s important to give yourself time to rest between workouts. “The body is always going to work at its own time, its own seasons, and its own rhythms,” explains Fisher. Working out the same muscle groups regularly can gradually cause damage, so “don’t focus on a one dimensional workout on just one part of the body," adds John Thornhill, master trainer at Aaptiv, a digital workout app.

Outside of the gym, a key way to tell if your fitness regimen has gone too far is to examine if it's affected other parts of your life, such as your relationships or work success. Are you experiencing poor sleep, fatigue, lack of energy, or inability to concentrate? If so, it may be wise to get your blood and hormone levels checked in order to evaluate if you're struggling internally.

And even if you're not experiencing these issues, speaking to a medical professional — whether it’s a doctor, nutritionist, or another specialist — can help you create and maintain a healthy fitness/diet balance. Those with access to a fitness trainer would be wise to take advantage, as well, and a therapist might also be beneficial in ensuring that your mental health and body image remain stable as your physique begins to change. Having these kinds of conversations may feel out of the ordinary or uncomfortable, but they're essential reminders that fitness should be about health, not physique.