• BrightLifeEmma

How bodybuilding is helping women's mental health

Imagine spending a year lifting heavy weights in the gym, dieting down until your muscle pop under your skin, and stepping on a stage in front of a crowd in a teeny tiny bikini to be judged by professionals. Does it sound like something that would help reduce anxiety or lift the weight of depression? Heck no!

But many women find competitive bodybuilding to be the perfect solution to generalized anxiety, social anxiety or depression. How so? Let’s dive into the hidden benefits of bodybuilding when it comes to mental health.

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Bodybuilding is not what you think

Chances are if you met a female bodybuilder in the street, you might say they are fit or toned, or you might not even look at them twice.

For many, the word bodybuilding brings images of extremely muscular individuals, men with arms as big as both your legs, women who “look like men”, steroids and whatnot. These are extremes, and the reality for the majority of bodybuilders is very different.

Chances are if you met a female bodybuilder in the street, you might say they are fit or toned, or you might not even look at them twice. The vast majority of bodybuilders are “natural” (they do not use any performance enhancement drugs) and compete in divisions that require a small to moderate amount of muscle.

As the name suggests, bodybuilding is about building your body, growing your muscles to achieve a harmonious physique. It’s not just about becoming fit and healthy, it’s transforming your body into a work of art (if I say so myself), and striving to become the best version of yourself.

Bodybuilding is about growing, physically and mentally

Bodybuilding is, more than anything else, a journey. It takes months, often years, to build a physique. Few bodybuilders compete in more than 2 or 3 shows per year, and it’s not unheard of to take an entire year off competing to work on improving your physique. The journey is long; it is as physical as it is mental. And that, dear reader, is why bodybuilding can be so beneficial to mental health.

"It has been beyond positive for me! I have anxiety, depression and PTSD, and being on prep quiets my mind because of how focused I have to be. I’m able to get out of my own head, and the gym is my escape where I leave all of my negativity at the door and just lift. I’m there with a goal, no messing around. It’s changed my life completely." Taylor L.

When building your body, you have no competitor other than yourself. Along the way, you learn to live a healthy lifestyle, to push through plateaus and frustrations, and to discover how your body responds to changes in your exercise or nutrition regimen.

Socially, bodybuilding is a great exercise in independence. Fitness is trendy, but bodybuilding for females is still not widely accepted – cf the “looking like men”. Most bodybuilders learn to distance themselves from what others are thinking or saying. “You do you” is their motto. And it’s truly liberating.

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Stepping on stage is a confidence booster

Many women decide to compete in a bodybuilding show to “do something for themselves”, not to look good on Instagram or get a “revenge body” after a breakup. It’s an incredibly personal project. Every decision made during the process is your own and impacts only yourself. The results of your efforts are very tangible: your body is changing, you are building healthy habit, you are feeling better in your own skin.

"I suffer from anxiety and mild depression. Throughout my 26 years of bodybuilding, weight training/cardio as greatly helped me in times of having a lot of anxiety. I call it therapy. [...] It truly is a BIG part of my life and I cannot live without it. The rush of the endorphins, the feeling of being strong and getting the blood pumping to the muscles is such a great feeling! The gym is my time alone to not focus on the struggles that I have faced and but I have them overcome because of having my training." Janelle G

With that comes the unique feeling of being empowered. What you do matters. Bodybuilding helps women feel stronger, physically and mentally.

Getting in the zone, focusing on the moment

When entering the gym, bodybuilders step into their own inside world. For an hour or two, they’ll focus on themselves and their training. Use proper form to ensure effectiveness, control breathing to maximize outpout, track progress to continue to improve. Everyday struggles are left at the door.

Getting “in the zone” is a well-known technique to improve mental health, give our brains a break, and practice something we love. This daily appointment with the gym does just that.

A goal and a plan

For someone with anxiety like me, there is nothing more terrifying than the unknown, the lack of a plan or flying blind. While it’s impossible to control everything, and managing anxiety is about learning to let go of control, having a structured diet and a training plan can be very beneficial for an anxious girl. It’s one less thing to think about. It’s one of the few things totally in your control.

Alora Griffiths on Unsplash
It’s given me confidence and creating a healthy relationship with food with teaching me discipline and boundaries! Latoya M.

A better relationship with food

Bodybuilding goes beyond the gym, it is a lifestyle. To make true progress and build your physique to your maximum potential, diet, sleep and overall life habits are primordial. The benefit of a wholesome foods diet, well balanced in nutrients and designed to fuel your body cannot be overemphasized.

Food is not viewed as “good” or “bad”. Food is fuel, food is a tool to help you reach your goal and build the body you’re looking for, and by the way a bodybuilder gets to eat A LOT of it.

I used to struggle with binging because I was used to seeing that pattern from my mom and the structure of prep helped me overcome that habit because it gave me direction and purpose. [...] I know the opposite is true for a lot of people. It also eases my stress a lot because I feel like it has given me a channel for something I love and is rewarding since I do not get that from my job. Paula J.

That being said, dieting to a stage-ready physique is hard and is certainly not for everyone. Can competitive bodybuilding create disordered eating in some people? Yes, definitely. I urge anyone considering competing to first consult with their physician or therapist.

"(I) struggled with severe social and generalized anxiety and depression my whole life. Generally fitness has helped a lot and bodybuilding even more so. I have discovered fitness "therapy" about 10 years ago and have been competing for 3 yrs. Some days when things are really tough lifting helps release it and feel somewhat normal." Marina F.

But for those who push trough and go to the end of the process, the rewards of stepping on stage showcasing your hard work and dedication are many. No matter who’s there on the stage with you that day, you are bringing the best of you, and that is a win in itself.

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