Much media attention is now focused on the use of anabolic steroids by athletes seeking to boost performance and gain an edge in their game. But experts say the abuse of these drugs is far greater by average joes at the gym who just want to look more buff.
"There are way more people using them who aren't professional athletes than are," says Robert Kersey, a professor of kinesiology and health science and director of the athletic training education program at California State University, Fullerton.
"They're doing it for look more than function," Kersey says.
Just as women have long strived to look like the beauties in the fashion magazines, more men are now focused on achieving an "ideal" body type that they see in male underwear models or stars on the big screen, experts say. To bulk up, some men are willing to go to extreme lengths, supplementing long hours of strength training at the gym with steroids, often referred to as "the juice." Some women also use steroids recreationally but the problem is far greater in men.
Never big enough
Some men have a condition called muscle dysmorphic disorder, in which they view themselves as puny even though they aren't, notes Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise.
The condition has been dubbed "bigorexia," because it's essentially the opposite of anorexia, in which women see themselves as fat even when they are starving themselves. In addition to steroid use and excessive training, men with bigorexia may also opt for pectoral, calf or buttock implants to appear more muscular.
Because of the increased attention on the male form, many experts believe the steroid problem among recreational users is growing, though there are no hard statistics to prove it. In the past, however, those who abused steroids were primarily competitive athletes and body-builders, but now users include young men who just want "to achieve a certain look," says Bryant.
In a 1993 survey of 185 members of health clubs in the southwestern United States, Kersey found that 15 percent of respondents said they had used anabolic steroids and 60 percent knew others who had. Of those who used steroids, most said they took the drugs "to get bigger," according to the survey results, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Kersey says steroid use today is likely more common than 15 percent in some clubs. "In the more hard-core strength-oriented gyms, it's probably at least that," he says.
Brian Grasso, director of athlete development at the Sports Academy Northwest, a training facility in Chicago, says the problem is widespread.
"I've known so many guys, especially, who take steroids recreationally," he says. "I can tell you there are a lot of guys out there in the United States who are taking steroids aesthetically."
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Brooke Correia, a spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a Boston-based group that represents many health clubs across the country, says gyms aren't seeing a problem.
"From our perspective, it's really a non-issue," she says. "There's no indication there's a systematic problem among regular gym members. It's just not something from our perspective that we've seen."
Easy to obtain
Steroid use is certainly less out in the open today than in the past, according to Kersey. "You used to go in the hard-core body-building clubs and the needles would be in the trash can," he says.
That kind of things isn't so likely to happen now, he says, especially in the mainstream health clubs that cater to a diverse clientele.
But steroids aren't hard to find, says Jay Hoffman, professor and chair of the department of health and exercise science at the College of New Jersey in Ewing and vice-president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a leading group that certifies personal trainers.
"If one is interested in taking steroids, they just have to find the right person in the gym to get them," such as some body-builders and even trainers, he says. Steroids are also available over the Internet and across the border in Mexico, he notes.
No quick fix
But men should not think that steroids are a quick fix, says Bryant. It's not like Jack and the Beanstalk, where all a man needs to do is take some "magic beans and he'll grow," he says. Results only come with intensive weight training.
Grasso says a better understanding of how to properly strength train to get desired physical results could help cut down on steroid abuse. It's a message he emphasizes when he speaks to kids around the country about the dangers of steroids.
Steroid use has been linked to a range of side effects including severe acne, shrunken testicles, 'roid rage, liver tumors and heart troubles. But some people who take steroids tend to downplay the risks, experts say.
"There is clear evidence that you greatly increase your risk for all of these things and what you choose to be is a guinea pig," Bryant says.
Athletes who take steroids generally cycle on and off the drugs, taking them for a period of 10 weeks, for example, followed by a 10-week break, says Hoffman. They also may avoid the drugs during much of the off-season. This can help cut down — but not totally eliminate — side effects.
But recreational exercisers who thrive on the look that steroids helps them achieve may be very reluctant to take a break, making matters worse. They may also experiment with greater and greater doses in hopes of achieving bigger and bigger muscles.
"It's like a narcotic," says Chuck Kimmel, head athletic trainer at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., and president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association.
Steroid users can become psychologically addicted to the muscle definition they achieve with the help of the drugs, he says.
But the price they may pay can be steep, emphasizes Bryant.
"They're playing Russian roulette with their health."
Smart Fitness appears the second Tuesday of each month.
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