By Natasha Harrison
His hands firmly clench the metal bar and he exhales deeply. There is a look of concentration on his face as he lifts the weight. At 21, Ricky Rudduck follows the trend of increasing gym attendance among young men.
There is a growing proportion of males between the age of 15 and 30 who visit the gym four to five times a week.
Recent surveys by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) estimate that around 30 per cent of men in this age group undertake some form of physical activity in the gym. This is an increase of 10 per cent compared to the previous generation and has occurred over the past few decades.
Peter Sikfus, spokesperson for AIS Research, says, “With the national concern for obesity and greater focus on people’s appearances, these results are not surprising and are likely to increase considering how this exercise culture has become ingrained in people’s daily lives.”
Ricky Rudduck uses the gym at least five times a week and works on different types of muscles with weights. “It is something I try to make time for in my life as it is really important to be healthy and active plus it’s enjoyable,” he says.
A love for the gym runs in Ricky’s family. His grandfather, Wes Rudduck, was a bodybuilder and owned a gym in Beverly Hills.
“Being part of a gym is different nowadays and there are other motivations. Back then it was a real exclusive community for only elite individuals. Now it is something that everyone seems to get involved in and value,” Wes Rudduck says.
However, there is a risk that an obsessive relationship can develop between young men and gym attendance. Medical psychologist Dr Robert Sprafkin has found that the pressure to attain a muscular physique through a strict exercise regime often becomes all-consuming.
“Society’s values emphasise thinness and perfectionist fitness, which provides plenty of encouragement and justification to go to whatever extremes necessary to achieve these goals,” he says.
The incidence of eating disorders among young men has increased by 20 per cent in the past two decades and there has been alarming evidence of a condition known as muscle dysmorphia.
“There is a growing tendency for men to feel dissatisfied with their appearance and compare themselves unfavourably to others,” Dr Sprafkin says. “This creates a dysmorphia where they perceive their muscles and body as inadequate and something which must be improved at all costs.”
Dr Sprafkin’s research reveals it also results in working out while injured, neglecting family and work and even the use of anabolic steroids to develop muscle mass.
Ricky Rudduck can relate to this pressure. “We live in a society that measures worth on appearance and the image of an attractive man is seen in the Hollywood celebrities of the media and popular culture,” he says.
Compare this to the standards of past generations. “Becoming more muscular was only the goal of professional bodybuilders,” Wes Ruddock says, “and the ideal man was the gentleman bachelor of contemporary romance films.”
The number of people working with personal trainers has increased by 50 per cent in the past decade reflecting the emphasis society places on health and fitness.
Trainee naval officer Cameron McDowall, 20, has noticed this emphasis both among friends and fellow navy trainees.
“A solid half of my friends go to the gym in varying degrees, some go every day like a religion and others go a few times a week,” he says.
It is something that not only characterises life in the navy, it is a priority even in a busy life at the cost of leisure or social activities, he says.
Cameron has a number of friends who are obsessed with the gym. “Some mates shape their lifestyle around the gym and it orientates their whole day, down to every piece of food they eat. There is a real desire to impress people and look better so they are not inadequate compared to those around them,” he says.
Peter Sikfus acknowledges the danger of young men developing an intense and overbearing obsession with the gym.
“Gym attendance is a healthy and beneficial activity but when it becomes a controlling factor in your life, it starts to become unhealthy and there is a need to change your lifestyle so that there is a greater balance.
“This is something that should be taken into account with future research to address social pressures and body image,” he says.