Bodybuilding Researchers Uncover a Baffling Paradox in Men Who Use Steroids

"Yet this does not stop them taking them.”

Unsplash / Damir Spanic

In the United States alone, between 3 to 4 million people use anabolic-androgenic steroids to increase their muscle mass. Worldwide, steroid users make up 3.3 percent of the global population. They are banned by professional athletics organizations, and scientists have warned of their health effects, but the quest to become shockingly swole continues. As new research shows, steroid users are actually very well aware of the consequences.

On Sunday, at the European Congress of Endocrinology, a team of Russian scientists will present “The Price of a Beautiful Body” — a summary of their research on the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids. These steroids are synthetic variations of the male sex hormone testosterone. Sometimes they are prescribed by healthcare providers to treat hormonal issues and disease that cause muscle loss. However, these drugs are also misused by athletes and bodybuilders looking to boost performance and change their appearance. “Anabolic” refers to muscle building, while “androgenic” refers to increased male characteristics.

When the researchers from the Pavlov First Saint Petersburg State Medical University passed out an anonymous survey to 550 men who regularly attend the gym, they found that within this group, 30.4 percent said they used steroids. And more importantly, 70.2 percent of this group knew about the negative side effects linked to the steroids.

“These findings were surprising,” first author Dr. Mykola Lykhonosov explains. “Not only was the prevalence of steroid abuse high, [but] knowledge of the damaging side effects was also high, yet this does not stop them taking them.”

In the study, bodybuilders knew the risks of steroids, but still used them.

Unsplash / Jonathan Borba

The list of damaging side effects runs long. Misuse of the steroids could lead to negative mental effects like paranoia, extreme irritability, and mania. There’s also evidence that steroid misuse has physical health consequences including, but not limited to reduced sperm count, erectile dysfunction, baldness, breast development, and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and liver or kidney failure.

According to the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse, there’s still much to be learned about how these drugs affect the body. Most data on their long-term effects comes from case reports, meaning that the adverse effects listed could actually be underreported. In the US, it’s difficult to measure steroid misuse because national surveys don’t measure it. But it’s been established that when people misuse them — either by taking them orally, injecting them into muscles, or applying them as a gel — the dose is ten to 100 times higher than the doses prescribed to treat medical conditions.

The silver lining of this study is that 54.8 percent of the respondents who used steroids indicated that they still wanted to receive more expert information on the drugs. The main source of information they received on steroids, 48.7 percent reported, was the internet.

Lykhonosov and his team argue that scientifically sound information online can still be a “main tool in limiting the use of doping drugs” — even if it might seem like a lost cause. People may know what they do is bad for them, but they are willing to change their mind.

Partial abstract:
Background: The motivation for the use of AAS by men engaged in recreational activities is the improvement of body composition and strength indicators. A deterrent to the use of AAS can be awareness of the side effects of their use, in particular the development of secondary hypogonadism.
Results: 762 questionnaires were provided for the assessment. 550 questionnaires were met the criteria. AAS was used by 30.4% of respondents (n=167). The main consumers of AAS were men aged 22 to 35 years old - 74.3%. The most common drugs were Testosterone propionate (51.5%). The most common dosage of injectable testosterone was 1000 mg per week (23.9%). The use of AAS over 9 months was indicated by 11% (n=19) of men. The main source of information on AAS was indicated by the Internet (48.7%). A negative attitude towards AAS was formed by 17.3% of respondents. 69.3% (n=381) of respondents gave a positive answer to the question about awareness about AAS, 30.7% - negative (n=169). Almost all respondents using AAS indicated that they have information on AAS - 96.4% (n=161). In the group of non-AAS users, the majority of respondents are informed about AAS - 57.4% (n=220), 42.6% (n=163) are not informed. Among all respondents to a clarifying question about awareness of side effects and complications of using AAS, an affirmative answer was 73.8% (n=406), negative - 26.2% (n=144). AAS users are more aware of AAS (χ2=82.954, p<0.001) and their side effects (χ2=70,207, p<0.001) compared to non-users. 22% (n=121) of the respondents were not informed with the side effects of steroids. 54.8% respondents expressed desire to receive qualified information about the AAS.
Conclusion: The survey data indicates a high awareness of the side effects of using AAS, which, surprisingly, does not lead to the conscious abandonment of their use by people engaged in recreational activity. However, a significant percentage of those wishing to receive qualified information about the dangers of steroids gives hope that the information can still become the main tool in limiting the use of doping drugs.
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