A new study suggests that teenagers are increasingly attempting to achieve more muscular physiques, and that one in 20 have used steroids in their pursuit of their dream body shape.
The study, released in the journal Pediatrics, notes that the media is saturated with images of men and women with toned and muscular bodies. Anecdotal evidence has overwhelmingly suggested that teenagers, and in particular adolescent men, become obsessed with enhancing their physiques.
Therefore, researchers at the University of Minnesota wished to ascertain whether the pursuit of the so-called perfect body has led teenagers both male and female to make muscle enhancing life-style changes, and to ascertain whether a high number were also resorting to risky behaviors like the use of steroids.
To gain a picture of the issue, researchers took a diverse sample of 2,793 middle and high school students in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area with an average age between 14 and 15. This information was gathered from the 2010 EAT (eating and activity in teens) data analysis from a 235 question survey asking teens about their dietary habits, weight, exercising practices and other related factors.
Researchers assessed the data for 5 of what they termed “muscle-enhancing behaviors.”
- changing eating habits
- using protein powders
- using steroids
- using other muscle-enhancing substances
Almost two-thirds of the sample said they had changed their diet in order to increase muscle size or achieve better muscle tone. Almost 35 percent reported using protein powders and protein shakes in order to add muscle. Nearly 6 percent reportedly used steroids. Meanwhile, 12 percent of male teens and 6 percent of teenage girls said they had adopted three or more of these behaviors.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these behaviors were more common among teenage boys, while sports team participation was also an associated factor.
The study found that muscle-enhancing behaviors were a great deal higher among the sample than had been anticipated and that, rather than clustering to particular schools, they were widespread across the sample.
Results from the current study reveal that behaviors aimed at increasing muscle size or tone are extremely common: almost all students report doing at least 1 behavior with this as the goal, and up to one-third reported the use of unhealthy methods, such as taking steroids or other muscle-enhancing substances. Muscle enhancement is common and was particularly high among boys and those involved in sportsteams, as seen previously.
However, use was not limited to these groups. This finding suggests that, in addition to a “thin ideal” and focus on leanness, muscularity is an important component of body satisfaction for both genders.
The researchers concluded that these muscle-enhancing behaviors could be cause for alarm and should be something that health professionals should be prepared to tackle:
Although it is appropriate to promote physical activity in youth, which may have desirable benefits in terms of health and body composition, care should be taken to emphasize moderation in behaviors and to focus on skill development, fitness, and general health rather than development of a muscular appearance.
Researchers add that targeting sports coaches in schools in order to educate them of the potential problems with muscle-enhancing behaviors could help teens stay on the right side of their fitness goals.
Putting the Study in Context
Researchers note that the sample is only a relatively small size and therefore may not be representative of national trends, though certainly the implications may hold wider concerns and warrant further investigation.
Unfortunately, reports on this study have fallen into the trap of often equating steroid use with the use of protein powders. This is, in part, due to the way that the research and researchers have also framed the study.
However, supervised or moderate use of non-steroid non-hormonal supplements such as protein powder has been shown to be safe (though not necessarily effective) and thus it would be a mistake to say that this muscle enhancing-behavior, taken in isolation, should be overly concerning, though that teenagers are resorting to these methods at an early age may be cause for concern.
Lastly, the research seems to associate muscle building as an end-goal to an unhealthy habit. Certainly, there are many practices within muscle-enhancing activities that, when taken to the extreme, can be harmful. However, of itself bodybuilding is not necessarily or inherently harmful.
The study is a wake-up call that we should ensure we are providing safe and accurate guidance to teens that enables them to work toward their health and fitness goals in a way that is safe and sustainable.
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