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Want a Better Body? Then Work at It

Health: The search for that 'magic bullet' to make people bigger and stronger is more intense than ever. But despite all the promises of products, nothing beats exercise.


"Eat it and you'll be big and strong."

Kids have been getting this line from moms since Cain and Abel's day. Teens and adults get it too, from entrepreneurs high and low.

All sorts of drugs, herbs, concentrated foods and exotic concoctions are offered to athletes and bodybuilders. Some of these things are illegal, or illegal without a prescription, or against the accepted rules of fair competition. But violation of the laws and rules is outrageously common, Sports Illustrated reported recently.

Even among Olympic athletes, the magazine stated, "the use of banned performance-enhancing substances has apparently become more widespread, and effective, than ever."

Note that word "effective."

While there's a lot of junk sold to athletes that does no good at all, it's the junk that does do good that worries health professionals.

Anabolic steroids, for instance, do promote muscle growth. And in large doses they also can produce acne, thinning of hair, liver damage, menstrual irregularity, heart problems and such unsexy results as smaller testicles, low sperm counts and diminished libido.

"Obviously all of us . . . are looking for that magic bullet that will make us bigger, better, stronger, smarter . . . without having to do much work," said nutritionist Ann C. Grandjean, director of the International Center for Sports Nutrition in Omaha. "When the results are immediate and the risks are 20 years off, it's very hard to convince" people not to use steroids.

And the search for such magic bullets, both by scientists and consumers, has never been more vigorous than today.

Scientists don't judge what's true by looking at only one or even a couple of studies. But promoters of many substances skew the evidence by mentioning favorable studies in ads and leaving unmentioned those pointing the other way, said Peter Lemon, director of the Applied Physiology Research Laboratory at Kent State University.

DHEA, for instance, is a substance that turns into a variety of hormones in the body; it has become a popular drug based on a lot of publicity and on research that few scientists consider sufficient.

Melvin H. Williams of Old Dominion University, the author of "Nutrition for Fitness & Sport" (Brown & Benchmark, 1992), had planned a study of DHEA and later canceled it. "We heard about some of the papers of the negative effects and we didn't want to give people something that may cause problems down the road," he said.

One chemical that is getting some respect from scientists these days is creatine. "It's very promising," said Lemon, who is studying it himself. "It looks like it might be a significant addition to very intense exercise performance, especially if that exercise is repeated with a short rest interval . . . as in ice hockey, soccer, weightlifting."

Creatine is part of the chemical reaction that powers the muscles. "It's present in your body in your muscles, but it can be increased through dietary means," he said.

When asked what people who want bigger muscles and stronger bodies should do, the experts agreed that the essential thing is exercise, an every-other-day program using weights or weight machines that will tax the muscles and stimulate growth.

Exercisers should drink plenty of fluids and eat a well-balanced diet, including plenty of carbohydrates (for energy) and protein (to provide the amino acids that the body uses to build tissue).

Do they need fancy protein powders? If the money in their pocket is weighing them down, sure. Otherwise they can just eat more meat, fish and milk or, if that seems too normal, try the powdered skim milk at the grocery. Dietitian Faye Berger Mitchell of Bethesda, Md., suggested making a double-strength drink by adding the powder to milk. Skim milk powder is loaded with protein, fat-free and cheap.

But it's no magic bullet.

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