updated 8/17/2005 2:50:17 PM ET 2005-08-17T18:50:17

Getting a sculpted look is a goal for many U.S. teens — and while some are using dangerous supplements to get it, sizable numbers of girls and boys are engaging in more healthy strength-training, a survey found.

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Eight percent of girls and 12 percent of boys surveyed said they used supplements in striving to become more buff. Protein shakes and powders were the most commonly used, but teens also listed steroids, growth hormone, amino acids and other potentially unhealthful products among those they’d tried in the previous year.

With obesity on the rise, it’s encouraging on the one hand that many teens try to look fit, said lead author Alison Fields, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. But there’s “a fine line” between fighting obesity and using potentially unhealthy methods to achieve potentially unrealistic goals, she said.

“Our results would suggest that some of these kids have gone right past healthy to something unhealthy,” Field said.

The report appears in the August edition of Pediatrics, being issued Monday. It was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and cereal-maker Kellogg Co.

Field said the large numbers of youngsters thinking about getting toned or actively trying to achieve the look suggests at least some likely have unrealistic expectations about how their bodies can or should look.

'A quick fix'
Dr. Eric Small, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ sports medicine and fitness committee, said he suspects supplement use was underreported, since other studies have suggested that teens’ use of steroids alone is more prevalent.

Small helped write an academy policy statement published in April that says performance-enhancing supplements are unproven and under-regulated and should not be used by children or teens. He was not involved in the survey.

“Everyone wants a quick fix” but lifestyle changes are generally more effective, Small said, adding that teens should seek healthy lifestyles rather than trying to emulate a certain look.

“Working out is definitely a good thing but you have to work out for the right reasons,” Small said.

The study was based on a 1999 survey conducted by Field and colleagues of 10,449 12- to 18-year-olds whose mothers were participating in a Harvard-affiliated study of nurses’ health.

Roughly 30 percent each of boys and girls said they frequently thought about wanting more defined muscles. Forty-four percent of girls and 62 percent of boys said they’d participated in strength training. That activity wasn’t defined but it likely included weightlifting, pilates and yoga, Field said.

Boys who read men’s, fashion or fitness magazines and girls who said they wanted to look like famous women were more likely than other youngsters surveyed to use supplements to enhance their physique. However, the researchers said they were unable to determine if youngsters who were already fitness-conscious were more drawn to fitness-oriented media, or whether it was exposure to media that prompted their fitness-seeking behavior.

About 15 percent of the girls and 23 percent of the boys were chubby or seriously overweight. About three-fourths of the youngsters participated in team sports, and most were white and from at least middle-class families.

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