Muscle Madness: More Teens Are Bulking Up

Teens place a premium on muscular builds and are increasingly taking chances with their health to get them

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Teens place a premium on muscular builds and are increasingly taking chances with their health to get them.

When it comes to body image, more is better, at least when it comes to muscle, according to a recent study of teens and body image. Published in the journal Pediatrics, the analysis involved 2,793 middle- and high school students living in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area who reportedly bulking up by using products like steroids and protein powders. The scientists found that the adolescents see toned and muscular bodies as the ideal, and are willing to change eating and exercise habits, as well as use supplements and steroids that have been linked to adverse health effects, to enhance muscle development.

Boys were more likely to take up these habits, with two-thirds of those surveyed reporting changing their eating habit to favor muscle mass. Thirty-five percent of boys used protein powders and 6% used steroids.

Although building bigger muscles was less common among girls, 21% reported using protein powders, 4.6% used steroids and 5.5% used other substances. In total, 12% of boys and 6% of girls engaged in three or more different behaviors to gain muscle. “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 authors write.

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“We were very alarmed by the high numbers of youth using muscle enhancers such as protein supplements. These behaviors suggest high concerns about youth with regard to muscularity,” says study author Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota.

But the results are complicated by the fact that building muscle may also promote some beneficial behaviors, particularly among teens who were obese. In fact, greater use of muscle-building behaviors was found among kids with higher BMIs or struggling with obesity. The authors write:

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.

“There are many confusing messages in our society regarding what is healthy. While it is appropriate and desirable to aim to be physically fit and be involved in physical activity, this should be done through healthful eating and activity behaviors,” says Neumark-Sztainer. “The youth may view taking muscle enhancers as a healthful behavior given that substances such as protein powders are widely promoted. We need to move away from the idea of an ‘ideal body shape’ toward an acceptance of diverse body shapes and sizes.”

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According to Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist, anything taken to an extreme is a problem. “We have a spectrum. Here, what you have is a healthy eating behavior gone all the way to the other side so you’re not only developing problems with eating, but you are developing a substance-abuse problems with steroids too,” she says. “Parents need to have discussions constantly about how to make sustainable gains in a healthy way through eating and exercise, and they need to show a healthy example.”

While the findings may be alarming, pediatricians and body-image experts say they are not very surprising. “I have not only seen it in my private practice, I’ve seen it in the gym too,” says Greenberg. “There are all these media images of muscularity. It used to be Twiggy and now we are seeing more muscularity, which is a newer trend. In the magazines you read about the celebrities who work out with their trainers and it’s not to get emaciated, it’s to get built.”

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Younger kids are often more willing to take risks with their health. “When kids hear the message they need to be perfect, they will do whatever it takes even if it means something unhealthy,” says Robyn Silverman, body-image expert and author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat. “They may realize there are some risks to what they’re doing, but the pay off is better than the drawbacks. Teens have a way of saying to themselves, That won’t happen to me.”

Both Silverman and Greenberg blame social media with inundating kids with images of beefy men and toned women. “With every disorder — including anorexia and cutting — they’re all happening at younger ages. It has a lot to do with exposure to social media. They’re not supposed to be on Facebook until they’re 13, but many are before that, and there is a lot of imagery on it,” says Greenberg.

Children not only can look up protein powders to take online, but they can stumble upon online support groups that can fuel unhealthy behaviors. “We have seen this in pro-ana sites. Teens can look up how to use steroids, and even if risks are provided, they may filter out the negative,” says Silverman.

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The challenge for parents, however, is to remain aware of what their children are exposed to on television and on the Internet. Greenberg recommends parents involve themselves in their kids’ interests so they can have meaningful discussions about what they’re seeing. “Parents should sit down with their kids and start watching with them regularly, and see if what they see is appropriate,” she says. “Shows can glorify these behaviors in a way that makes them look exciting to kids.” And lead to potentially unhealthy habits.

21 comments
Jones71544621
Jones71544621

I don't think using steroids extensively is safe but Arginine is helpful with almost no side effects. It changes into nitric oxide, which causes blood vessel relaxation (vasodilation). Early evidence suggests that arginine may help improve with vasodilation and has been studied for wound healing and bodybuilding: http://dess.me/XtmN

JFAcoustic
JFAcoustic

Steroids at a prescribed and maintained level are not nearly as detrimental as supplements. Supplements are not well regulated by the FDA, and many are poorly manufactured thus containing deadly toxins.

The most important thing to tell kids is that the best way to "get big" is by maintaining a great work out routine through weights, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and running, as well as a great diet. What I couldn't stand about this article was that it seemed to say its ok to be fat "accepting all shapes and sizes". No, a persons physical appearance says a lot about their health

grizz281
grizz281

The sad thing is, these are the viewpoints of the authors of the actual study, who hold medical degrees. They assert that taking protein is as bad as taking steroids which is simply not true. Where this stigma comes from is a mystery to me. And the simple fact that there is already such a negative image surrounding steroids, given all of our professional sports organizations' stringent policies on performance enhancers, should discourage teens from using steroids, not encourage. Unless our teens these days really are that irrational... 

Also, promoting an "acceptance of diverse body shapes and sizes" is just coddling our defeatist attitude to maintaining our own health. With obesity on the fast rise, more and more people will start to think that being 100 lbs overweight is okay. They don't realize the multitude of health risks that come with carrying an extra 100 lbs of fat, including but not limited to diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

It's sad that this study and furthermore the conclusions drawn from it is authored by people holding medical degrees. Where is the evidence that lifting and drinking protein shakes is a gateway to taking anabolic steroids? The study makes no mention of it, this article certainly doesn't try to establish that linkage. All this study shows is that more teens are exercising and altering their diets to improve their health and fitness. Muscle growth is not a bad thing.

I'll have to commend the author of this article, however, on highlighting the fact that muscle growth does provide benefits. This study, despite what I assume are good intentions, hides this fact and sends a confusing message. i.e. obesity is bad, but it's bad that we're seeing more teens in the gym. The journal article only seems to mention this in passing and other news sites don't even mention how this study might complicate things.

USMCShrink
USMCShrink

What's with protein powders being lumped in with steroids? One are a class of synthetic male hormones that are prescription-only (and not indicated for sports/bodybuilding purposes), the other is simply a food supplement.  Heck, as protein is a macro-nutrient itself, it'd be better described as just...well...food.  People drink protein shakes as a quick way to get a high-protein meal on the go. Though the type of protein in these shakes varies in quality, most are decent. (Heck, the quality of the macro-nutrients in most of our food is highly variable.)

JimHannington
JimHannington

Our pro, HS, college rec coaches have sent the wrong message.  Parents are no different.  Those big paychecks and stadiums are a deception.

ChrisInMebane
ChrisInMebane

A small percentage of people will find steroids, especially in the sports teams. But to call out protein powder in the same line as steroids is just terrible scaremongering. Nothing in this article is bad outside of the steroid use.

What I am taking from this shoddy "journalism" is discourage a lifestyle of high fitness early to make sure we have more sheeple to herd.

Hephaestus
Hephaestus

Ok...the fact that steroids are being mentioned in the same panic laden breath as protein powder shows that on the whole this is more media scaremongering. Yes; steroids can have many negative side effects, especially if you abuse them, and can have the quality problems associated with the black market nature. 

However...panicking about protein powders...really? REALLY?? Protein powders are no more dangerous than any other food if consumed too much; actually less so compared to fat or simple carb laden snacks by nature of the nutrient type. And please don't give me the "FDA doesn't regulate supplements" scare-mongering because I'll tell you a surprising fact; it isn't in the interest of a supplement manufacturer to kill or injure their customers, and protein is not some exotic substance whose effects "we don't really know" (if I hear ONE MORE precautionary principle argument, I'm going to have an anyuerism; it's the go-to argument for people too afraid of the fact human beings aren't omniscient). 

The only people who are at greater mortality risk from supplementing, in any statistical sense that has ever been observed, are those who use steroids; and even still, mainly those who abuse them (or HGH and other such exotics that work on the endocrine system). 

But far be it from me to get in the way of another TIME led/sponsored media panic over a non-existent social ill over which they can cry out for more government regulation. Shouldn't let facts or lack of evidence of any problem get in the way of that.

I'll show myself out. 

TrajanSaldana
TrajanSaldana

i understand the health "concerns" but hey...better lean than obese ANY day

sirbatlan
sirbatlan

The way I see it, the problem is that teens are obsessed with their appearance and that is the only factor the take into consideration. They go to the gym not as a part of a healthy happy lifestyle, but really just because of social pressure to look a certain way.That's also why they look for the fastest ways to build a strong figure even if it's not the safest..and it is such a shame because really..learning how your body works is so interesting even if you're not into biology! 

Just for example, you can google "When you say build muscle what do you mean?"

Another point is that so many people depend on the pump to show the muscles but it dies off quickly. Instead of working for density and tone, so many people just become addicted to the gym as a result of relaying on the pump.The are ways to build muscle and feel good about it, because you're doing what your body needs you to do anyway- keeping fit and active. There is absolutely no need for steroids or to get competitive (which can lead to injuries).Treat your body right and it will thank you. Just don't forget to treat the mind as well. Happiness is key, stop comparing yourself to others and become the best version of yourself that you can - for yourself.

breindrein
breindrein

Rather muscle than fat. It is a lot of work to gain a lot of muscle so if kids aim for a lot of muscle the most they will likely end up with are toned bodies. Also, I doubt protein supplements are bad unless they take like 4 times the recommended amount daily which would require a lot of shakes and get super expensive.

JBSiegelMD
JBSiegelMD

Given the alarming rates of childhood obesity in this country, and the ever increasing numbers of people with weight-related diabetes, I would suggest that it is a good thing that young people are showing an interest in building lean muscle and not fat. I agree with previous comments that one should not confuse the use of exercise and nutritional supplements, which to me are fine, with the use of anabolic steroids, which are not.

We are not talking about anorexia here, we are talking about young people who are intent on building sculpted muscular bodies. While anything can be taken to an extreme, most of what is described here sounds pretty reasonable to me. Can one over exercise? yes, but it's not that common. Can one affect one's health by diet changes? Yes, but again not common. Most young men who are bulking up ADD protein and SUBTRACT fats... there is no evidence in otherwise healthy bodies that this is a problem. 

What we might want to do, instead of worrying that this is a bad thing, would be to encourage schools to include teaching on what is healthful and what is not (scientifically speaking) with regard to nutrition and health. 

Toti
Toti

Wanting to have an athletic body does not equate having a body dysmorphic disorder, and eating healthily - which can include eating supplements - does not equate having an eating disorder. If anything it is especially encouraging if young girls see healthy, athletic bodies as appealing instead of the old emaciated, anorexic bodies. Women and men of all ages should be encouraged strongly to go to gym and lift heavy weights. This has been proven to have beneficial effects on both physical and mental health in numerous studies.

Also, supplements should not be mixed with steroids as they are in this article. It is confusing to lay people. Supplements are food. Steroids are drugs. They have nothing in common apart from a small minority of people using both.

In the future, please take a more balanced perspective and interview a more varied group of medical professionals and psychologists. It is very important to make people understand that any thing taken to extremes is dangerous, but that eating protein supplements in moderation and going to gym is for the most part healthy.

Mayzse
Mayzse

Are you kidding? Your listing protein powder as an unhealthy health practice? Steroids I understand but protein powder? Show me a study where protein it's harmful to humans.

Anon.ome
Anon.ome

Intentional change of eating and exercise habits is generally a very good thing. A timely application of that during the growth years will likely provide significant lifelong benefits.

This article doesn't seem to appreciate that. It does add to the FUD by scattering itself in multiple directions and more or less picking on the pathologies in each direction: 1. Strength training 2. OTC supplements (mostly unnecessary or placebos) 3. Steroids 4. Psychological disorders 5. Media influence.

The author could've given more helpful advice if she mentioned that the kid pictured doing the squat should keep his gaze down, and look at a spot on the  floor about 5 feet in front of himself.

the.chemist.of.discord
the.chemist.of.discord

Conflating the risks of using protein powder (from milk whey -- pretty safe stuff) with the risks of using  anabolic steroids is beyond ridiculous. Oh no, protein is a "muscle enhancer"? And putting on muscle is the same kind of self-image disorder as anorexia! Of course, how could we have been so foolish? 

This all sounds like the emotional projections of a nation of the resentfully flabby. Just let your kids atrophy in front of a video game, and they won't make you jealous. 

redleg
redleg

they are bulking up because they want to attract other men, and show off for other men, which is why all those gym shower rooms are hotbeds of gay activity. REAL men who get attractive women do NOT seek the likes of "snookie" and other such trash. steroid losers is what they are

JFAcoustic
JFAcoustic

Lack of research in these supplements are what's scary. I want to know the hard details about them, not just that it supposedly makes you gain more muscle

the.chemist.of.discord
the.chemist.of.discord

@redleg That's pretty creepy. You go to weird gyms where steroids are apparently readily available (whereas in the rest of this country they're not, regardless of the opinion of this ignorant author), but you don't exercise at this unusual gym, because that would be gay.

redleg
redleg

@the.chemist.of.discord @redleg no i don't go but it's a well known FACT.  i don't work out EVER and have no interest in strutting in front of other men. and my GF has model looks, and an angelic personality.  more snookies for you