The quest for six-pack abs and a ripped physique may be leading some teens -- especially boys -- in an unhealthy direction, a new study suggests. Nearly 2,800 middle school and high school students answered questions about what they did to build muscle size or tone. Exercise was, far and away, the most common thing boys and girls reported doing. However, some teens reported a risky behavior: Almost 6% of boys and 4.6% of girls said they had used steroids.
Media images of muscle-bound, "ripped" guys may be giving teen boys unrealistic ideas about how their bodies should look, in the same way ultra-thin fashion models do for teen girls, says researcher Marla Eisenberg, ScD, MPH, of the University of Minnesota. “If you look back to the '70s or even the '80s it was pretty unusual to see a man without a shirt on in an ad or on TV,” she says. “Now they are everywhere and they all emphasize the muscular look.”
Eisenberg recommends that pediatricians and other health professionals ask their teen patients about what they're doing to build muscle to check if their strategies are healthy or not. “Of course, exercise is a good thing,” she says. “But when the emphasis shifts away from health and toward getting a particular look or body type, this might point to body image concerns.”
Muscle-Building Activities Common
The risks are real. It's not uncommon for teens to show up in the ER as a result of over-training or using steroids to build muscle, says ER doctor Robert Glatter, MD, of New York's Lenox Hill Hospital. The new survey, published online today and appearing in the December issue of Pediatrics, is the first to examine muscle-building behaviors among teens.
‘Proof Not Necessarily in the Mirror’
Just as with adults, there are healthy and unhealthy ways for teens to build muscle, says pediatric sports doctor Chris G. Koutures, MD, of Anaheim, Calif. Koutures recommends eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as protein for building muscle and strength. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of sports supplements. And, as with any supplement, it is not always clear if what is listed on the label is really what is in the bottle or jar. “I tell my patients the focus should be on how they feel, not how they look,” he says. “If they are getting faster and stronger, and they are able to work harder, then what they are doing is working. The proof isn’t necessarily in the mirror.”