Too much of a good thing? Dangerous muscle building habits among teenagers

Study suggests steroid use among teenagers is more common than many realize

Everyone knows childhood obesity is a topic of national concern. From the White House to the schoolhouse, everyone is paying close attention to the expanding waistlines of millions of the nation’s children. But on the opposite side of the spectrum there’s another threat to the public health of young people that gets far less attention—excessive muscle building among teenagers.

A new study, looking at almost 3,000 middle and high school students, indicates that almost 6 percent of them have used steroids to get bigger muscles, and many more rely on excessive and unhealthy amounts of protein powders and weight training to bulk up.

“Many people have felt pressure to slim down because of messages in media,” says Sara Forman, MD, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Eating Disorders program. “But this study shows that the pendulum can swing too far in an unhealthy direction, especially for young males.”

Sarah Forma, MD

And while exercise and maintaining a healthy weight is important for everyone, Forman says young people who resort to steroids and other muscle building supplements are often doing so for the wrong reasons, and putting themselves in danger in the process.

“It’s no secret that teenagers have a tendency to do things to the extreme, regardless of the consequences, and in some cases that can include trying to achieve more muscle mass than they’re capable of having yet,” she says. “Working out and monitoring one’s protein intake is important for achieving a healthy body, but only when done in moderation. In some cases these kids aren’t after health, they’re chasing an idealized physical form that will be impossible for them to achieve until they’re older and in the final stages of puberty.”

And it’s not just the young athletes who are at risk. Overweight children in the study were more likely than their average-weight peers to use muscle enhancing products, especially protein shakes and creatine supplements. Because they’re sold as health aides, many young people may think substituting these unregulated products for food will help them achieve a more muscular physique, but in doing so they’re denying themselves important nutrients. A nutrient-deficient diet will not only hurt the user’s chance of putting on more muscle, it can lead to potentially serious health concerns like anemia, bone loss and heart and kidney problems.

Clearly unhealthy muscle building techniques are dangerous for anyone, but it’s especially true for adolescents who are still growing. “Teenagers are already going through a process where their body is creating plenty of hormones that affect their growth, development and mood,” Forman says. “Adding unknown and often unregulated amounts of hormones in addition to what’s happening naturally can make for a volatile mix.”

Of course, idealizing strength and masculinity is nothing new—when he died in 1972, Charles Atlas had been pushing muscle building to body-conscious young men since the 1940s—but the barrage of media featuring overly muscular, athletic people has increased in recent years, and could account for the study’s findings.

Teenagers are going through a process where their body is creating plenty of hormones. Adding unknown and often unregulated amounts of hormones in addition to what’s happening naturally can make for a volatile mix.

“There’s a lot of talk about the ‘six-pack’ these days,” Forman says. “In our clinic we’ve seen more and more children desiring that chiseled body, and it’s not unreasonable to think that increased exposure to that body type in the media has something to do with it. It’s too early to say there’s a definite cause and effect relationship, but they do seem to coincide with each other.”

If you’re worried that your child is developing unsafe muscle building habits or is overly focused on achieving a “perfect” body, here are a few warning signs to look out for.

Does your child:

  • seem overly concerned with physical appearance and muscle tone?
  • force himself to exercise, even if he doesn’t feel well?
  • suddenly prefer exercising to being with friends or family?
  • focus on training to the point where her grades have suffered?
  • become very upset if he can’t work out?
  • dramatically change her eating habits and portion sizes, or avoid certain foods altogether?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, Forman recommends you bring it up with your child’s pediatrician. Adolescence is a time of great physical and developmental change, and some of the above behaviors could be a natural reflection of that, but in some cases excessive focus on these issues can represent a more serious problem that may require professional help to correct.