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Most teens want to build muscle, even if it means going to great (and unhealthy) lengths

December 14, 2012

Gym rats, pro athletes, and teens- what do these three groups of people have in common? They all want to build muscle, and may even go to great lengths to do so. It is common to hear of gym rats, and even some pro athletes (even if it’s against regulations), who use steroids, or other muscle-enhancing supplements to help gain muscle mass, but now teens are mirroring these risky behaviors, too. While it’s great that teens have an increased interest in exercising, the desire for a certain body type can lead teens down a slippery slope of dangerous behaviors.

The Study

With the perception of popular body images in the media shifting from those who are just thin, to those who are muscular and lean, teens are becoming more dissatisfied with their outward appearance, causing them to be easily influenced by the market of muscle-enhancers and body-building lifestyles.

A recent study released in the December 2012 issue of Pediatrics, examined the behaviors of 2,700 adolescents (boys and girls) in 20 middle and high schools to determine their use of muscle-enhancing behaviors. Muscle-enhancing behaviors were defined as: changed eating habits, increase in exercise, and use of protein powders, steroids and other muscle-enhancing substances. And the results (and reality) of just how many teens were willing to indulge in muscle-enhancing behaviors were shocking.

The study found that among boys, more than two-thirds changed their eating habits, and 90 percent exercised more to achieve greater muscle mass and tone. Okay, not too bad; this could be great news, if done in a healthy way! But, on the flipside, 34.7 percent of boys used protein supplements, 5.9 percent reported using steroids, and 10.5 percent reported using another form of muscle-enhancing substances. Girls showed similar behavioral patterns of adapting eating and exercise habits to accommodate their muscle-enhancing goals, with 21.2 percent using protein powders, 4.6 percent using steroids, and 5.5 percent reported using other muscle-enhancing supplements. In other words, there are a lot of boys and girls out there who are engaging in unnecessary behaviors that could put their health at risk, now, or in the future.

The Takeaway

If you’re like me, you may have just read those statistics thinking that was a whole lot of numbers that you don’t know what to do with. But, you know what, those numbers are important, because they represent the reality that kids as young as 13, 14, and 15, are interested in gaining muscle, and need to be taught the healthy way to do so. Some of these muscle-enhancing behaviors, such as changed eating and exercise patterns, or even some protein powders, are not necessarily dangerous, and could be beneficial in moderation. However, if kids as young as 13 years old are engaging in these behaviors now, what are they going to be doing at 19 or 20 years old?

It is our role as healthcare professionals, parents, and health advocates to educate teens on what a healthy lifestyle looks like. We must show them that it is possible to enhance muscle strength and size through the proper eating habits and exercise regimen. It may take hard work, but this approach far outweighs the health-risks and side effects of the many “fast results guaranteed” muscle-enhancing capsules and supplements on the market. Building strength the healthy way is a lot like running a marathon, not a sprint.  Cutting corners along the way (and in this case, putting your health at risk) just to get to the finish line faster isn’t the winning strategy.

To read the full AAP study on “Muscle-enhancing Behaviors Among Adolescent Girls and Boys”, go here.

If your child is showing an increased interest in building muscle tone, talk to your child’s pediatrician, or a local dietitian, about a proper meal plan and diet regimen that is suitable for your child.

Are your kids showing an increased interest in exercise? How do you teach your teens the healthy way to get fit and build muscle strength?