Dangerously Strong

TIM TADDER/CORBIS

Anabolic steroids are deadly—and illegal. One teen’s story shows how the pressure for bigger muscles can lead to tragedy.

It seemed like Taylor Hooton had everything going for him. Popular, with a 3.8 GPA, the 17-year-old loved relaxing with friends and cruising around in his black Dodge truck with his girlfriend. He was a talented baseball pitcher who dreamed of going pro.

The summer before his senior year, Taylor stormed upstairs to his bedroom and hanged himself. In the tortured days that followed, his family members wondered what could have compelled such a healthy and successful teen to take his own life. Their answer came after the police searched Taylor’s bedroom and found a stash of anabolic steroids. These powerful drugs are prescribed by doctors to treat serious health issues.

They are also used illegally by athletes to quickly build muscle and improve performance. These synthetic forms of testosterone, along with the pure, human-derived form, are banned in professional sports. Still, hundreds of professional and Olympic athletes, most recently cyclist Lance Armstrong, have been disgraced—some even stripped of their awards and medals—after admitting to steroid use.

But even as steroid scandals in professional sports make headlines, thousands of teens are risking their health—and their lives—by using these powerful drugs.

Fits of Anger

In the months before Taylor’s death, his parents noticed that he had bulked up. They simply believed he’d been training hard, and that his new muscles were a result of his more intense weight-lifting program. The real story: When Taylor was 16, a coach in his hometown of Plano, Texas, told him that if he wanted to make varsity, he’d need to bulk up. This advice still shocks his father, Don Hooton. “Taylor was already 5'11" and 180 pounds,” he says.

Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of teens currently use anabolic steroids in their quest to bulk up. Few understand that they risk permanent injury to their bodies—or worse.

One serious side effect of steroid use is that users can become mentally unbalanced, with uncontrolled fits of anger and irrational thinking. This, doctors explained to Taylor’s parents, is what likely had happened to their son, and what led him to take his own life.

Of course being fit is an important part of being healthy. For older teens, lifting weights can improve strength and athletic performance, as it did for Lucas Atwood, a high school rugby player from Denver, Colorado. Following a knee injury during his freshman year, Lucas lifted weights to keep in shape and regain strength in his knee. Today, he is an all-state rugby player, and he plans to study physical education in college. “For me, lifting weights has helped my confidence,” he says.

But for some boys, weight lifting isn’t about fitness—it’s about appearance: getting bigger and more ripped.

In a recent University of Minnesota study of middle and high school students in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, 91 percent of guys said they had exercised over the past year to increase their muscle mass. Thirty-five percent reported using supplemental protein powders or shakes to bulk up and get toned.

Just a few decades ago, ultra-muscled bodies were mainly seen on circus performers and professional weight lifters. Today, actors like Channing Tatum flaunt their bare chests on magazine covers. Chris Brown and Justin Bieber prance shirtless as they sing and dance.

In forums on websites such as bodybuilding.com, teens chart their workout goals and share photos of themselves. Photo galleries show boys who undergo seemingly miraculous transformations—from skinny guys to Incredible Hulks. Are these pictures even real? It’s unclear, since many of the faces are blocked out. But the sites are popular with teens, and users post messages urging others to become as big as possible. “[Freshman year] I was such a beta, let girls walk all over me and let bigger boys bully me,” writes an 18-year-old who goes by the name “Maverickcrash.” “[Now] I’m motivating the guys that were at my stage to get big and become real men.”

False Advertising

Are such radical transformations even possible for most teens? Experts say no. Almost anyone can build their muscles and make them more defined through exercise and diet. But how big a person’s muscles can grow (naturally) is determined by genetics.

What about those guys you see in advertisements for most bodybuilding supplements—with massive muscles, carved abs, and turkey-drumstick calves? “The message in these ads is that if you work hard and buy the right supplements, you’ll look this way,” says Dr. Harrison Pope, an author and professor at Harvard Medical School. “But the vast majority of the people in these images are taking steroids.”

Pope has studied and written about what he calls “body obsession” in men and boys. He says that the black market availability of anabolic steroids has created a new breed of bodies that set an unrealistically high bar for attractiveness.

These unattainable standards can cause a mental illness called body dysmorphic disorder in some teens—no matter how much they work out, they never feel like they’re “big enough.” In other words, boys are being brainwashed by images of bodies that are unnatural.

Supplements 101

And what about those nutritional supplements and protein powders sold at fitness centers and health food stores? Most doctors dismiss the idea that they can help build muscle.

They also point out that though these supplements are legal, they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Unlike food and drug companies, supplement manufacturers don’t have to prove that their health claims are accurate.

“These products make it look like they’ll give you more power,” says Dr. Linn Goldberg, a professor of sports medicine at Oregon Health & Science University and the co-director of the ATLAS and ATHENA programs, which promote healthy, drug-free training and nutrition for high school athletes. “But you have no idea what is actually in a supplement ”In fact, the experts at Consumer Reports caution that some nutritional supplements can contain dangerous substances, such as synthetic steroids, pesticides and heavy metals that can be damaging to the body. They found similar contaminants in several brands of protein powders.

More important, for kids like Taylor Hooton, using supplements can easily become a bridge to using anabolic steroids.

So how can you tell if you or someone you know is taking muscle-making too far? If persistent thoughts about being too heavy or too wimpy make you feel the need to work out every day for hours, that’s a red flag, says Annie Fox, the author of Too Stressed to Think? So is constantly monitoring your calories, weight, or body fat. This goes for boys and girls.

To combat this obsessing, Fox recommends not looking at magazines and websites that show super-built men and women (or at least looking at them with a grain of salt). Otherwise, you’ll feel inferior—when you’re not. “If it’s a print image, it’s been airbrushed, but we don’t think about that. People on the red carpet have had a lot of enhancements and help,” says Fox.

If taking a media break doesn’t turn off the voice inside your head that tells you that your body isn’t good enough, talk to an adult you trust about getting professional help.

Balanced Approach

Excessive weight lifting—even without supplements or steroids—can also be dangerous. Doctors don’t recommend weight lifting to boys younger than 14. For those old enough to weight lift, it’s important to work out under the supervision of a qualified trainer. If you try too hard to get killer abs or bulging biceps, you might cause an overuse injury—damage to the tendons or joints that can cause ongoing pain and problems.

The best fitness approach is a well-rounded one. “Do as many kinds of activities as possible,” advises Craig Helmer, a trainer who works with teens at Balance Fitness Studio in Minnesota. Shoot baskets at your local park. Bike. Swim. Walk. Dance. Do push-ups and crunches. Go to the weight room at your school (for strength training, not to make your biceps bigger). Join a team.

That balanced approach worked for Kallie Harper, a senior at North Hills Senior High School in Pennsylvania. A basketball and softball player, Kallie exercises throughout the year and mixes conditioning with endurance and skills training. “When you work hard, it makes you feel good—like you’ve accomplished something,” she says.

That’s a message that Don Hooton wishes Taylor had heard—and one that he hopes more teens take to heart. “Taylor didn’t understand that there are permanent decisions,” he says, “and he lost his life.”

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