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Making the case for steroids

For quick results, average gym-goers are turning to performance enhancers. They say risks are overblown.

March 19, 2007|Jacqueline Stenson | Special to The Times

UNLIKE professional athletes who use anabolic steroids to improve their game, a 27-year-old mortgage broker in Orange County turned to "the juice" for reasons of pure vanity, "as simple as a looking-good thing."

At the suggestion of a bodybuilder friend, he purchased a round of the drugs -- including oral and injectable steroids, as well as injectable human growth hormone -- for $1,000 in Mexico a few years ago. The drugs helped him buff up in just six months. "My arms went from 15 inches to 17 inches," said the broker.

But what about side effects? Did his testicles shrink or his hair fall out? Did he suffer a stroke or heart attack? Did he develop 'roid rage or man-breasts?

Denying them all, he laughed, saying the risks of the drugs have been overblown: "They definitely get a bad rap."

Doping scandals may be rocking the sports world, but fitness experts say there's a quiet, yet likely much bigger, trend -- performance-enhancer use among guys who just want to bulk up and have little or no fear about taking illegal and potentially dangerous drugs to do so.

Many exercisers and recreational athletes believe that doctors, public-health experts, politicians and the media have greatly exaggerated the side effects of performance enhancers, especially steroids, the most recognized -- and believed to be the most widely used -- muscle-building drugs.

When combined with strength-training, anabolic steroids, which are synthetic versions of the natural hormone testosterone, promote muscle growth and allow exercisers to train harder and more frequently. Men who start seeing results with steroids may be tempted to "stack" them with other performance-enhancers, such as human growth hormone and clenbuterol.

Steroids are particularly popular because they're known to yield results, are commonly available at gyms and the Internet and come in various forms such as pills, injections and creams. By comparison, growth hormone, for instance, must be injected and is typically much more expensive.

In sports, the main criticism of doping is that it's cheating, and athletes' biggest risk is getting booted from their sports or being stripped of medals and honors if use is detected. But run-of-the-mill gym-goers don't worry too much about getting busted. Though performance enhancers are illegal when used for nonmedical purposes, the greater risk of getting caught generally lies more with sellers rather than buyers.

There are no solid up-to-date statistics on use of steroids or other performance enhancers in the adult population, but public-health officials, exercise researchers and trainers believe it's increasing, especially among men wanting to get buff.

A nationwide household survey published in 1993 in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., the most comprehensive population-wide study to date, estimated that more than 1 million people, including teens, had used or were using anabolic steroids.

"I think that's low-balling it now," says study author Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus of exercise and sport science at Penn State and editor of "Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise."

Many gym-goers who use performance enhancers see them as no riskier -- and perhaps less so -- than surgical cosmetic fixes.

Los Angeles personal trainer Rob Parr describes an acquaintance with a "waistline like Santa Claus" who used steroids over several years to transform himself into a Rambo look-alike. The man, in his 30s, avoided alcohol and ate a healthful diet, Parr says, and simply didn't think steroids posed a threat. There's even an attitude in gyms that there is "steroid use" and "steroid abuse," and that the muscle men are the go-to guys for "safe," reasonable steroid advice, as opposed to doctors and others in the medical community whom they believe exaggerate the dangers.

The medical community's credibility gap with gym-goers dates back to the 1970s and '80s, when early studies concluded that steroids didn't boost muscle mass and may be no better than placebos, says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit fitness group based in San Diego.

"All the people in the gym knew that was nonsense," Bryant says. The problem with the studies is they involved medicinal doses, he says, not the amounts athletes and bodybuilders take -- which could be 10 to 100 times higher.

No one knows for certain just how dangerous it is to use high doses of anabolic steroids for extended periods of time.

"There has not been one epidemiological study of the long-term health effects of steroids," says Yesalis. "But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Still, anabolic steroids have been used in medicine for decades, for conditions such as muscle wasting and anemia, at lower doses, and doctors and researchers do know the drugs have potential to cause side effects.

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