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Could steroid use and muscle-enhancing behavior be rising among teens?

Washboard abs, toned biceps and sculpted quads are no longer goals just for body builders; it seems adolescents are trying to achieve the “perfect” body, too.

As emphasis on muscularity has increased in recent decades, muscle-enhancing behaviors are now common for both boys and girls, and rates are higher than previously reported.

Adolescents in high school, teens of Asian background, students in overweight/obese BMI categories, and those involved in sports reported significantly greater use of muscle-enhancing behavior than other youth.

These are the findings of “Muscle-Enhancing Behaviors Among Adolescent Girls and Boys,” a recent University of Minnesota study led by Marla E. Eisenberg, Sc.D., M.P.H. Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, which appears today in an early online release of Pediatrics.

Possibly most shocking, the researchers found nearly 6% of boys reported using steroids.  That’s almost twice as many as previously thought! Among girls, 62% reported changed eating habits to increase muscle size or tone.

“We were not expecting to see rates as high as we did among girls, since this is typically thought of as a boy’s issue,” said Eisenberg. “Our findings show society needs to reshape how we think of body image concerns.”

Eisenberg went on to explain that in recent decades, images of men in the popular media and advertising have grown increasingly more muscular. Research has found exposure to these images contributes to body dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia in young men.

Regarding media images of women, research has focused almost exclusively on thinness as the cultural ideal for femininity, but there is some indication that modern media figures combine slenderness with a toned, firm and muscular look that was not emphasized in previous generations.

“Parents, pediatricians and other health care providers need to be aware that these behaviors are happening, and even if a teen looks muscular and healthy, he or she may still be participating in unhealthy behavior to achieve the ‘perfect’ body,” said Eisenberg. “Adults should start talking to teens about muscle-enhancing behavior as they would any other harmful behavior.”

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