Our New National Health Crisis: Teenage Boys Are Exercising


After all these years of media scare stories trying to terrify readers with worries about how kids are too sedentary and don't eat well, I suppose it's comforting to find a scare story about how teen boys are obsessed gym rats who consume lots of protein and very little fat. The New York Times delivers the goods:

Take David Abusheikh. At age 15, he started lifting weights for two hours a day, six days a week. Now that he is a senior at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, he has been adding protein bars and shakes to his diet to put on muscle without gaining fat.

"I didn't used to be into supplements," said Mr. Abusheikh, 18, who plans on a career in engineering, "but I wanted something that would help me get bigger a little faster."

Pediatricians are starting to sound alarm bells about boys who take unhealthy measures to try to achieve Charles Atlas bodies that onlygenetics can truly confer. Whether it is long hours in the gym, allowances blown on expensive supplements or even risky experiments with illegal steroids, the price American boys are willing to pay for the perfect body appears to be on the rise.

Here's the new data to justify the article:

In a study to be published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics, more than 40 percent of boys in middle school and high school said they regularly exercised with the goal of increasing muscle mass. Thirty-eight percent said they used protein supplements, and nearly 6 percent said they had experimented with steroids.

Over all, 90 percent of the 1,307 boys in the survey — who lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but typify what doctors say is a national phenomenon — said they exercised at least occasionally to add muscle.

Yes, the same paper that recently warned that overweight teens who don't exercise were at increased risk of diabetes and likened teen obesity to smoking, and which in 2009 published a lengthy piece on how teen obesity led to early death (sample expert quote: "We know that health behaviors are established early on in life.") is now concerned that large numbers of teenage boys are exercising, and experimenting with diets that will help them build muscle. 

Why exactly should we be so worried? 

"The problem with supplements is they're not regulated like drugs, so it's very hard to know what's in them," said Dr. Shalender Bhasin, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. Some contain anabolic steroids, and even high-quality protein supplements might be dangerous in large amounts, or if taken to replace meals, he said. "These things just haven't been studied very well," he said.

So the problem with supplements and other muscle-boosters is that the government has left them alone and worried nannies have not yet determined if there are problems with them? 

No public health scare story would be complete without someone to blame. The New York Times points to television shows like Jersey Shore and Girls, which apparently feature muscled men who inspire admirers to spend time in the gym hoping to achieve a similar look. But The New Republic's Alec MacGillis has a different villain in mind: buff Beltway politicians like Paul Ryan: 

Before we lay all the blame on The Situation, it's worth noting that the muscle-head mindset has infected a more rarefied realm of American life as well: Beltway Washington.

There is, for instance, the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president, who is famous for leading sessions of the rigorous P90X workout regimen on Capitol Hill, who posed as your standard frathouse gym rat before the election and who prompted nine times more Googling of "Paul Ryan Shirtless" than "Paul Ryan Budget." And yes, he is pumping up musclehead business with the broader public

Truly these are dark days when America's youth look to politicians for exercise tips.