Teen guys and girls may be beginning to realize that exercise is a part of a healthy lifestyle pattern that will benefit them throughout life. In the age of childhood obesity versus body image consciousness, teens, especially boys, are beginning a trend to build muscle mass early on. Is this all healthy, or is too young detrimental to future growth and other health risks.
An article this past week in the New York Times, as well as recent television news reports, stated that while exercise is a healthy part of everyone’s life, teen boys may be exercising for all the wrong reasons. In a study to be published tomorrow in the journal Pediatrics, more than 40 percent of boys in middle school and high school said they regularly exercised with the goal of increasing muscle mass. Thirty-eight percent said they used protein supplements, and nearly 6 percent said they had experimented with steroids.
Pediatricians are starting to sound alarm bells about boys who take unhealthy measures to try to achieve Charles Atlas bodies that only genetics can truly confer. Whether it is long hours in the gym, allowances blown on expensive supplements or even risky experiments with illegal steroids, the price American boys are willing to pay for the perfect body appears to be on the rise.
Ninety percent of the 1,307 boys in the survey said they exercised at least occasionally to add muscle. “There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the last 30 years,” said Dr. Harrison Pope, a psychiatry professor at Harvard who studies bodybuilding culture and was not involved in the study. The portrayal of men as fat-free and chiseled “is dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago,” he said.
While college-age men have long been interested in bodybuilding, pediatricians say they have been surprised to find that now even middle school boys are so absorbed with building muscles. And their youth adds an element of risk.
Just as girls who count every calorie in an effort to be thin may do themselves more harm than good, boys who chase an illusory image of manhood may end up stunting their development, doctors say, particularly when they turn to supplements or worse, steroids, to supercharge their results.
In addition, younger teens do not have fully developed skeletal or muscle mass. Protein supplements, and particularly steroid use, can cause damage to immature body systems. Muscles that cannot handle the demands placed on them by rigorous, unsupervised exercise may never grow or heal correctly, leaving adult young men with unwanted health and body issues.
Others say there is less change of health risk. Boys may reap greater benefits now than they will later, since their pubescent bodies are creating more HGH than someone in their 20’s. Taking an interest in their health, even if it is for their looks, may build positive habits later. Energy levels will rise and they will have an easier time paying attention in school and have a better self-image, which will make for a happier social life.
Some exercise enthusiasts agree that physicians may not be the ones who should be involved. Professional trainers, nutritionists and physical therapists may have better knowledge and experience guiding boys looking to change their body image and get healthier. Field experts do not come cheap, however, and unless parents are involved and overseeing where the money goes, teens may be self-diagnosing and prescribing exercise routines, buying supplements inappropriate for their body age and development, and even taking dangerous an illegal drugs such as steroids.
“The problem with supplements is they’re not regulated like drugs, so it’s very hard to know what’s in them,” said Dr. Shalender Bhasin, chief of endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition at Boston Medical Center. Some contain anabolic steroids, and even high-quality protein supplements might be dangerous in large amounts, or if taken to replace meals, he said. “These things just haven’t been studied very well,” he said.
Anabolic steroids pose a special danger to developing bodies, Dr. Bhasin said. Steroids “stop testosterone production in men,” he said, leading to terrible withdrawal problems when still-growing boys try to stop taking them. Still, the constant association of steroids with elite athletes like Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds perpetuates the notion that they can be managed successfully.
Some teen boys may eventually even need psycho/psychiatric help if they develop an unhealthy obsession with appearance, just as some girls do who become anorexic or bulimic.
Online sites also can add to the confusion. Pictures posted of ripped teens lure younger boys into the culture, adding often false information about how to achieve the look and the timeline it will take.
While achieving a healthy lifestyle pattern is the goal, teens are just that- growing children who continue to need supervision, guidance, and oversight in the path to achieving a fulfilling and mature adulthood
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