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Study: Muscle-Enhancing Behaviors Increasingly Common Among Teens

Apparently, Hanz and Franz from "Saturday Night Live" aren't the only ones trying to get pumped up these days.

Both teenage boys and girls are engaging in muscle-enhancing behaviors far more than previously known, according to a study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.

As large, lean, muscular male body images have risen in popularity in Western culture, so too has teenage boys' dissatisfaction with their own bodies, the study suggests. Some boys thus decide to engage in muscle-enhancing behaviors to shape their bodies like the ones being presented to them in the media.

For this study, three researchers from the University of Minnesota and Columbia University examined data from 2,793 youths (with a mean age of 14.4) at 20 urban middle and high schools taken during the 2009-10 school year. The researchers set out to determine the prevalence of five specific muscle-enhancing behaviors: changing eating habits to increase muscle size, increasing exercise, the use of protein powder, the use of steroids, and the use of other muscle-enhancing substances.

Nearly 70 percent of the boys in the study (897 of 1,307 total) reported having changed their eating habits in order to increase their muscle size or tone within the past 12 months, and more than 90 percent of boys increased their amount of exercise to achieve the same goal.

More than 40 percent of boys reported that they often exercised more to boost their muscle mass or tone, while 39.1 percent sometimes did, and 11.3 rarely did. Only 8.8 percent of boys never did, according to the study.

While changing eating habits and exercising more could each be considered healthy habits, many boys engaged in unhealthy behaviors, too. More than one-third of the boys in the study reported using protein powders or shakes, 5.9 percent reported using steroids, and 10.5 percent reported using some other muscle-enhancing substance.

On the female side, more than 60 percent of girls reported changing their eating habits to increase muscle size or tone, and more than 80 percent of girls exercised more for the same reason. More than 20 percent of girls reported using protein powders or shakes, 4.6 percent reported using steroids, and 5.5 percent reported using other muscle-enhancing substances.

"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 study co-author Marla Eisenberg, a researcher from the University of Minnesota, in a statement."Our findings show society needs to reshape how we think of body-image concerns."

Almost all students reported engaging in at least one of the five behaviors being examined, according to the study. Nearly 12 percent of boys and 6.2 percent of girls reported using three or more of the five behaviors.

The researchers suggest that pediatricians should ask their adolescent patients about muscle-enhancing behaviors, and say sports physicals could present a perfect opportunity to do so.

"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," Eisenberg said. "Adults should start talking to teens about muscle-enhancing behavior as they would any other harmful behavior."

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