You probably used to think the term sports medicine referred to ice and ultrasound. Welcome to the 21st century! By now, unless you’ve been training on the moon, the use of performance enhancement substances is hardly news. Questions about the involvement of bodybuilders, Olympic athletes and all manner of pro sports participants in various doping controversies have been ubiquitous for quite some time. But have you witnessed an increase in interest or usage by the general population—specifically clients and staff at fitness facilities? Some fitness professionals report they have.
Stark light was shed on this issue in an informal telephone survey that I conducted recently of 17 well-seasoned personal fitness trainers. In addition to professional sports figures and bodybuilders, the 17 interviewees produced a surprising list of the types of clients they believe have experimented with, or regularly use, some form of training enhancement aid. These include Wall Street executives; police, fire and sanitation workers; high-society personalities; nightclub bouncers; men going through midlife; high-school boys who want to beef up and high-school girls who want to be buff; guys and girls who want to qualify for some elite branch of military service; movie stars and TV personalities; guys at the gym who don’t compete but like being the “monsters” of the gym; and even some people who are simply curious.
Paul Virtue, a fitness veteran of 20-plus years and owner of New York City–based Virtue Fitness, has an opinion on why noncompetitive use seems to be on the incline. “I’d say 8 out of 10 people I train aren’t into any sort of real competitive sport goals,” he says. “Rather, what they’re competing against is some societal image generated on the cover of some women’s or men’s magazine. And I don’t mean bodybuilder magazines; I mean those monthly ones you see at the supermarket. What makes things really stink is that the people in the worst shape come to me wanting the most dramatic goals. Most people just don’t have the work ethic or self-discipline to make those big changes they need to make, so they wind up hitting all sorts of frustrating walls. After a year or two of frustration, you can see why people go running to the shelter for some of ‘mother’s little helper.’”
When I conducted my survey, I was looking for a basic menu of performance enhancement substances: testosterone, stanazole, human growth hormone, etc. What I learned really knocked me back. I had no idea there were so many creative ways of adding to Mother Nature. Perhaps even more disturbing was how organized people were and how articulately they would explain why and how they found a path to their particular elixir.
When I turned the spotlight on personal trainers and group exercise instructors, my research took a darker turn. A handful of trainers and three group fitness instructors admitted having experimented with performance enhancers at one time but said they would never touch the stuff again. Another veteran of more than 20 years, John Platero, president of Los Angeles–based Future Fit Personal Training School, described a common scenario: “A new client joins the club and looks around for someone to train with. Who’s their eye going to drift toward? Of course, the client wants to work with the trainer who looks like he or she [walks the talk]—it’s only human nature. It’s not just personal trainers, but group fitness instructors too,” he adds. “Instructors have to maintain that infectious energy, create and lead new moves and choreography, and at the same time compete with ever-younger instructors, faster tempos and never-ending intensity increases, not to mention the constant gain of gravity on injuries and age.”
I mentioned to Platero that in my day (a thousand years ago I used to teach group exercise), some of my coteachers used lasix (a diuretic) to assist their look. Platero responded that “diuretics alone wouldn’t cut it in today’s hot studios. The instructors have to be cut and chiseled, with delt lines on the shoulders and oblique cuts across the midsection, or else forget it.”
In an industry so driven by visual stimuli, in which our own ads tout picture-perfect bodies, it’s no wonder that fitness professionals might be tempted to gain some “outside” assistance. Whether those involved include our fellow staff members or our clients, or maybe even a friend, it’s clear that use of training enhancement substances has crossed the boundaries of competitive sports. The question is, what can be done about it?
The “rules” for dealing with this problem are very simple:
Rule #1: Illegal drug use, distribution or possession is illegal!
Rule #2: Any perpetrators, be they staff or members, face the prospect of criminal prosecution.
Rule #3: Anyone caught breaking rule #1 will have to deal with rule #2.
The tricky part is enforcing these standards. How many of you have ever actually caught someone violating rule #1? Come to think of it, if the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League and Major League Baseball—with all the attention and resources they have to focus on the topic—hardly ever definitively catch someone breaking rule #1, how successful do you think fitness professionals can be? And what if the substances being used or abused are not illegal but are nonetheless negatively affecting the performance of a colleague or the behavior of a client? As I discovered in my research, people have become very creative in what they use for training enhancement. What’s more, many of the substances or combinations thereof can be purchased over the counter. These readily available substances work very differently than steroids, as do whole other classifications of drugs that might be used to assist people in their workouts, but that can lead to abuse and reckless behavior.
Education for both employees and clients is key. Research, collect and share information on the potentially damaging physical and psychological side effects of these substances. Keep on hand up-to-date research that shows people they can achieve their goals through careful diet and training choices. They may not be aware of the short- and long-term damage they are doing to their bodies. In short, arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can.
If you suspect illegal drugs are being bought and sold inside your facility, alert the owner immediately. If you are the owner, alert the authorities. Better yet, a strict and well-publicized “no tolerance” policy at your facility may stop problems before they begin. Vigilance can be your best defense.
We are all part of a great helping profession with enormous potential for growth and success. Don’t let it be soiled by those determined to get ahead at any cost.