Inside the business of extreme fitness

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Jan 24, 2023
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Being surrounded by outrageously fit physiques can affect how we view our own bodies. A licensed psychologist walks us through how to maneuver the fitness industry online. Mark Evans/Getty Images

Inside the business of extreme fitness

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Jan 24, 2023
Being surrounded by outrageously fit physiques can affect how we view our own bodies. A licensed psychologist walks us through how to maneuver the fitness industry online. Mark Evans/Getty Images
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This story contains details about body image issues, eating disorders and suicide that may be disturbing to some readers.

Here on the Marketplace Morning Report we have a special segment called “Econ Extra Credit”, where we watch a documentary a month with certain themes that are right up our alley. This month we turned to a classic, featuring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, called “Pumping Iron.” The film did a lot to launch the sport of bodybuilding from the fringes into the mainstream, but it also helped set off a fit explosion.

And while the fitness industry saw growth back then, it wasn’t yet in the algorithm. Now, teens and young adults are constantly told they are only a social media click away from their next fitness goals. But when does inspiration turn into harm? And what’s the role of social media in sharing harmful fitness messages?

To learn more about the fitness industry’s role on social media and the business of extreme fitness, Marketplace’s David Brancaccio spoke with Stephen Mayville, a licensed psychologist based in Reno, who’s done work centered around muscle dysmorphia and steroid misuse. 

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: I don’t know, some people of a certain age, remember the ads of muscle men, sometimes muscle women in magazines and maybe one of these bodybuilder events may have caught some people’s attention, but now it’s really everywhere. You can wake up, pick up your phone and see these images. Would you say it’s more ubiquitous?

Stephen Mayville: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it makes it easy. You know, in the day of… in the age of social media, just everybody can join, everybody can participate. So you start to view things and, you know, algorithms get used to your preferences and you can be bombarded by that as much as you want or maybe in some cases don’t want.

Brancaccio: Well if we think about that for a second, for instance, on just, to pick one, TikTok. If it notices, their algorithm, that you’re lingering over a couple of these images, you might get a whole lot more. And suddenly you’re surrounded and you didn’t fully, consciously choose to be surrounded by the images.

Mayville: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes, and these algorithms pick up on increasing the popularity of people who are looked at more and then there’s a big reinforcement contingency for those people creating more content too. So it’s sort of a self perpetuating thing that tends to grow over time.

Brancaccio: Yeah. Would you say, I mean, you’ve seen it in your practice, would you say it has more harmful effects than what we’re seeing from the 1970s? With the championship weightlifters occasionally having their, you know, competitions?


Mayville: Sure, yes. And, you know, you have, you know, the old days of bodybuilding, certainly, you know, I viewed that when I was playing football when I was younger and thinking ‘I can obtain this build, if I can just use this protein powder,’ and back then thinking a muscle mass for football. But you know, it’s really spread over to other things as well, including definition. And, you know, there are many different substances that contribute to this, you know, what you see in the social media profiles and images, including, you know, diuretics, steroids, so we have both mass and definition. And so you see, you know, those types of fitness influencers include both people who are enormous body builders, as well as people who are just seeking more definition. (In fact, since the ’80s, steroid misuse has expanded way beyond elite athletes).

Brancaccio: Would you say there’s a mismatch between what people say they’re doing and what they’re actually doing? Maybe someone’s using anabolic steroids but they keep it “hush-hush.”

Mayville: Absolutely. And when you see some studies where it can be upwards of 60%, with competitive bodybuilders, that’s also just looking at self report. So there are a lot of contingencies behind denying that and showing that you’re someone who can, you know, overcome the typical limits of the human body, through your hard work and, you know, achieve great things. So there’s a lot that’s riding on perpetuating that myth that these extreme physiques that you see are completely natural.

Advice for navigating the fitness industry online

Brancaccio: You see it in your practice? People coming in with unreasonable expectations of what they should look like, not fully understanding that what they see around them is not just from lifting a lot, or a little bit of protein powder here and there.

Mayville: Oh, absolutely. I think it still affects females much more than it does males. But you see that gap I think closing a bit. And I’ve seen both, you know, evidence of dissatisfaction related to mass as well as definition, and I have seen, you know, both ends of that spectrum within males. [I] even saw someone who is a male entertainer and I really didn’t think of that is, you know, as a profession where these guys are using steroids, because a lot of times, you know, when you focus on the extremes, you’re focusing on these muscle mag guys, but this guy was letting me know, all these guys are using this. That’s what everyone does. You know, so it’s… their focus, I mean certainly they have musculature, but they’re a lot more focused on that definition – being as cut as they can, you know, having those abs – and certainly that’s a characteristic of steroids as well, in combination with the use of diuretics.

Brancaccio: Now you could foresee a future where maybe more disclosure is required for people taking money to endorse products, but social media is not going anywhere. What do you tell your clients about navigating this world where the images come at you from all directions that could influence how you think about your own body?

Mayville: I think, you know, certainly describing what’s going on, and letting them know that if it appears too good to be true it probably is. I mean, we’re not even broaching the subject too of enhancement through things like Photoshop. But you know, a lot of times these images, you know, are too good to be true. And even if someone is on, some would call it the fortunate end of genetics, in terms of having a more muscular build, you know, even they are going through certain cycles of extreme behaviors, typically to achieve those results and to achieve that over time, or to maintain that over time is typically very difficult. I think it’s important to let people know that you don’t have to engage in self loathing to motivate behavior to be healthy. A focus on health is what’s important and de-emphasizing the importance of obtaining a specific look for life outcomes. A lot of times, there’s a lot of myths tied to that, ‘That if I just change something, my life is somehow going to be better,’ when that really, really isn’t the case in most occasions, and people get engaged in a lot of unnecessary self-loathing to try and change behavior in a positive direction.

Brancaccio: Among the many interesting points that you just shared is not only might the image of muscle man there on Instagram be fake or it could be steroid enhanced, it also could be the guy only look like that for three weeks, because he was ready for a competition or ready to star in a movie and might not look like that six months later or, you know, over the years.

Mayville: Absolutely, those images or that appearance, if it’s a competition, is for a moment in time. And it takes a lot of extreme behavior to get to that point. This is not how people look typically, just on an everyday basis, when they get up and put their clothes on and go to work. These images are typically timed, whether someone is cycling on anabolic steroids, or they’re going through the extreme behavior that’s needed to get to that point, take the images that they have and then go back to typical life.

The legacy of “Pumping Iron”

Brancaccio: Dr. Mayville have you seen “Pumping Iron?” I mean, you must have seen it some years ago. Have you re-looked at it?

Mayville: It’s been a long time. But certainly that’s one of the iconic, you know, bodybuilding films. And I think you know, one of those films that kind of perpetuates that myth of hard work, you know, and these guys aren’t talking about what they’re doing behind the scenes, you know? Schwarzenegger I don’t think admitted to steroid use until, you know, decades later. And certainly, he was one of the driving forces behind that bodybuilding world and that idea that you can obtain what you want with hard work.

Brancaccio: In fact, years later, another documentary came out called “Raw Iron,” which looked at the making of the original “Pumping Iron” and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the later documentary is like, ‘Yeah, I used steroids.’ But that took a long time for that to become clear, right?

Mayville: Oh, absolutely. And he was a promoter for years of, you know, what people would refer to as more like natural products, like protein powder. And certainly, like I say, even as an adolescent looking at that you’re going, ‘Dang, I want to get stronger, if I want to put on some muscle mass, this is all I got to do, you know? Some hard work and a little protein powder. And before you know it, this is what I’m going to be looking like.’ And obviously it came out later that that’s not at all true. At least, you know, in most circumstances people aren’t able to obtain muscularity even near that level without substantial artificial help.

How to set healthy fitness goals

Brancaccio: How do you think about a healthier approach to your fitness goals rather than dysfunctional approaches?

Mayville: It’s truly being fitness driven. You know, a lot of times people will say, ‘I just want to be healthy.’ And in having worked with a lot more individuals with eating disorders, that’s what you hear a lot. And it runs completely counter to what health really means. So really defining what does that value of health really mean? What does it mean to be healthy? And we all have our limitations, if you look at, you know, genetics, and you look at weight, it can get really tricky. And not all people can obtain a more thin physique. But I think when you truly look at health, you’re looking at healthy behaviors that are reasonable and sustainable over time. You know, not making these drastic swings but doing things because they honor that value of health. A lot of people believe it’d be nice to look a certain way and especially if that way is conforming with the western cultural ideals of health and fitness. But I think educating people and saying you know, it’s important to shoot for what your own fitness is and what’s realistic for you. And loving yourself in the process, not using this negative reinforcement paradigm of self loathing to increase your workout behavior.

Brancaccio: You spot that in your clients, the self-loathing? People, you know, show up distracted by thoughts along those lines.

Mayville: Oh, absolutely. And people will use that, you know, as inspiration they call it, on the fitness influencer side “fitspiration” and “thinspiration” on the eating disorder side. You know, using these images and sometimes deliberately using them to motivate, you know, these feelings to increase, whether it’s exercise or increased restriction. Absolutely that happens. Not everybody, but it can be a significant part of that pathology.

Brancaccio: It’s so hard though. It’s at every level on social media, right? I mean, maybe you’re not even a bodybuilder at all. But what photos of yourself do you put up and share with your friends? It’s where you look good, where the light is just right, where it caught you at that one moment, where you’re glowing. And, you know, day in, day out that’s not how we look.

Mayville: [Laughs] Right, absolutely, no that’s a good point. And you know, certainly again, the more attention you get for looking better. I mean, certainly, probably most people don’t care in terms of your friends and that sort of thing. But when you look at it on a bigger level with this “fitspiration,” stuff, you know, you’re trying to do something that others might consider extraordinary. And the more that it is that way, the more attention you get, and the more… the more attention you get, not only from people liking and following you, but the more money you can actually potentially make in doing that. So yeah, I think you’re right, it is very pervasive, from an individual level of trying to do what we can to put our best foot forward, to a much broader level that sort of encourages this idea that we need to be a certain way to be alright.

Hiding in plain sight

Brancaccio: Think about it, steroids have been illegal without prescription in the U.S. since 1990. That’s not the case in some European countries, even today, but in the U.S., illegal without prescription. Yet, there are people selling images, selling products based on, quietly, using steroids. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be legal liability to boasting of the effects, if you haven’t said out loud that you got there because you use steroids. I guess that’s a place that needs to be thought about more closely.

Mayville: Sure, absolutely. You know, certainly there have been, to my understanding, watchdog groups that have identified that that some, you know, some social media platforms are complicit in encouraging, you know, essentially advertising for illegal activities. And obviously, the consequences of that on an individual can be devastating. And one of the problems with these drugs is that the short-term consequences….I mean, if we just look at human behavior, short-term consequences are more powerful than the longer-term consequences. So if you can do something right now that enhances the way that you feel and, in your mind, how you look, you know, that will outweigh these consequences that you see potentially decades later with, you know, organ failure, cancers, numerous health problems. So it is a serious issue. And it’s something that certainly should be looked at in terms of how do we apply consequences to people or companies encouraging illicit behaviors.

Brancaccio: What’s that term from economics? Hyperbolic discounting. This is the idea that, it’s very clear the near future, you know, the next day or a few hours, but the further future is very murky and blurry. And it has big consequences, for instance, for retirement planning, personal finance. But you’re saying the effects of steroids is the same way, where you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I can be ripped soon. And if I get sick from this, it’ll be much later.’ And that’s a problem.

Mayville: Yeah. And you have a number of people that are able to calculate those risks in a way. I mean, maybe they’re discounting the potential that they’re the one that’s going to experience these long-term consequences. But they go ahead and they’ll acknowledge like, ‘Hey, I’m willing to make this trade off.’ Whether it’s professional sports or professional bodybuilding, there’s a very significant number of individuals, when they’ve done research on this, that are willing to say, ‘Hey, I don’t care what these consequences are. I know what they are. If I can win right now, if I can do these things to make me successful right now, then so be it. And, you know, let it ride and see how things play out.’ While I think there’s a lot of ignorance about these consequences for some, there are quite a few people [that] take these calculated risks, knowing that down the road that this could happen, but they accept that is a trade off, willfully.

Brancaccio: I mean, do you bring up steroid use with some of your clients? Or is that more something that would be between a person and their medical doctor physician?

Mayville: Yeah, I mean, if it’s an issue, I did have an individual who came to me once and was wondering what I could do to help him with his mood swings and he was using steroids. So I’m like, ‘You know, this is part of the deal.’ I don’t like the sometimes false dichotomy between like what’s biological and what’s, you know, behavioral, but it’s like, this is one of those things that I can’t help you with. If you come in and you’re choosing to use steroids, then, you know, this is one of the consequences, and you’re going to have to deal with it and it’s going to put you at risk… In this case, this individual is suicidal and, you know, really having a hard time when he’s cycling. And it’s like this is one of the things that comes along with it, if you choose to continue to do this, I can’t do anything to help you.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, anxiety or depression, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Here’s how to find help outside the U.S.

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image issues or an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or for 24/7 support text ‘NEDA’ to 741741.

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