Are Muscle-Chasing Teens Putting Their Health At Risk?

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.”

These included:

  • changing eating habits
  • exercising
  • 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.

From the study’s analysis:

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 finding 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.


Related Reading:

Sugary Drinks Weaken Muscles in Just 4 Weeks

As We Soy, So Shall We Reap

Warning: Image Portrays Unachievable Body Stereotypes


Image credit: Thinkstock.


Terry V.
Terry V4 years ago


Anna M.
A M5 years ago

Very well-written and interesting.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran5 years ago

working to look better is not bad but eating those "wonder shakes" is! real food not canned food for me please!

Mark Stephen Caponigro
Mark Caponigro5 years ago

There may be a bit of homophobia behind the attitude that there is something unhealthy about teens' working toward developing sexually attractive (i.e., lean, muscular, well-proportioned) bodies. Either that or Puritanism. Every now and then a trainer or body-building expert says something to the effect that the purpose of weight-training or callisthenics ought to be to prepare for performing better in a sport or other activity, and that improving one's appearance is NOT a good purpose. Such people seem to be uncomfortable with recognizing sexual attractiveness to be a good and desirable thing, and perhaps especially with the probability that image-related weight-training requires young men to study carefully the good looks of other young men.

Adrian McTiernan
Adrian McTiernan5 years ago

It's all in the hype - most teens are anxious, and have concerns about self, self-image, or negative comments from bullies who are usually fitter, bigger, or more popular. The young person so made anxious tends to try and be more like the more popular figures. Usually, the more popular ones actually are compensating for worries about themselves. I learned long ago that I am just as desireable or nice or can be as popular as the others in the limelight. It depends on how you care about others, and help them feel good. Those in the limelight pay a huge price to stay there, but those who care are cared about for all their lives. The super - slim or 'perfect' muscled are a minority and not in the major part of humanity anyway. A gym owner who won the mr. Universe contest told me of himself that he was naturally muscular, and it was not the result of lots of training. When it came to the contest, then he did some hard work on himself, but the rest of the year he did minimal exercise, but ate healthily. That's all you need, and a helpful and caring attitude. Try it - it works

Robert C.
Robert Cruder5 years ago

This study as presented suggests that nutritional products such as creatine or protein powder are dangerous with no evidence. To be credible, every study of teens must present all anabolics in the same negative light, again with no need for evidence.

Teens have become fat-averse due to the media, not bodybuilders. There are two responses to fat aversion, adding muscle or extreme dieting. Anorexia kills, muscle does not.

Teens only consider steroids because their schools have failed to give them even a minimal knowledge of body chemistry in their so-called health/PE classes.

Teens have destroyed their livers by consuming oral steroids but could do the same with only a slight overdose of Tylenol. Thousands of people die each year from the side effects of OTC pain killers. We don’t ban those because no one presented Tylenol as a killer of teens. Teens can kill themselves with booze, cigarettes and especially cars but there aren't any bogus studies motivating their prohibition.

One of the most reliable determinants of whether an older man will die in the next year is muscle mass and anabolics are valuable for them. Sadly, the bans frighten physicians from giving these seniors advice and support.

These studies frighten parents. Parents are ignorant about their teen’s activities. If something can harm their child it is easier to ban it for the entire population than to find out if their child is even involved with it.

Elizabeth L.
Elizabeth L5 years ago

Do teenage boys know that while steroids grow muscles they shrink other body parts?

Margaret Garside
Margaret Garside5 years ago

Taking steroids correctly is a big 'if'. Most teens most do that.

Thitry years ago, most male dolls (sorry-action figures) such as G.I. Joe were buff the way real soldiers are buff. They didn't look like body-builders. That started changing in the mid-eighties. I've never seen an actual soldier or Marine who was built like Rambo. The same was true with comic books. Look at how Superman was drawn thoughout the seventies and compare that with some later artwork. Super-steroids, anyone? I suspect the people behind all this were living out some macho fantasy.

My God, what are we doing to our kids?

rene davis
irene davis5 years ago

Steroids cause all sorts of health complications. Don't do it.

Aaron J.
Aaron J5 years ago

When people change their diets for their body, usually it is cutting down weight, upping protein, apart from protein powders and a lot of dairy.

As for steroids most are safe if they are taken correctly, oral steroids give mild liver toxicity, but then multivitamins can also give that and alcohol is much worse.

Working out also opens up veins and gets the heart beating and the lungs grow stronger so there is more oxygen in the blood, this mixed with the protein used for creating muscle boosts testosterone. Testosterone mixed with some fats, cholesterol and proteins boosts the immune system, burns the fat, uses up the cholesterol (including bad) and makes us healthier.

Steroids can reduce natural testosterone in our body by compensating for the artificial testosterone in steroids resulting in gynecomastia, but that depends on the specific steroid, the person, and there are cheap supplements that people should always be taking with steroids to remove those side effects, then the side effects are minimal.. There are also supplements like Milk Thistle and Liv.52 that detox the liver.

Think these people taking taking harmful protein shakes, steroids and working their body to extreme limits are generally much healthier than the average person.