It started with a man crush. “He was good-looking, and he was huge and he was popular,” remembers Brian Cuban of the former professional football player who worked out at his gym. In other words, he was everything Cuban felt he wasn’t.
So, when the former player mentioned that a nearby doctor could put patients on “weight-gain programs” – aka steroids – Cuban, then 26, made an appointment, got a prescription for an oral anabolic steroid called Anavar and began bulking up. “I started … working out even harder, getting bigger and more lean and more muscular,” recalls Cuban, now a 55-year-old lawyer, author and eating-disorder and addiction-awareness advocate in Dallas who was 26 at the time.
But along with the muscle gain came “an uptick in anger” that he worried would damage his relationship. He flushed the rest of the steroids down the toilet at work, but began again about three years later after the pair, who had gotten married, divorced. By then, laws had tightened to penalize physicians and trainers who promoted anabolic steroid use, so Cuban turned to the “black market” at his gym to buy them in injectable form. And so “Big Brian” – Cuban’s steroid-pumped alter ego – was born.
“This started a 10-year-cycle of steroid abuse because I liked ‘Big Brian’ – it made me feel good, it made me feel loved,” Cuban remembers. “‘Big Brian’ would never be that guy … that never got to go to the prom; that never held a girl’s hand.” The only problem with “Big Brian?” He was also that guy who was never satisfied. “No matter how big I got, it was never good enough,” Cuban remembers.
Cuban is among the many non-professional athletes – mostly men, experts say – who use or have used steroids and other appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs in the name of vanity, versus for sports or bodybuilding competitions. “It’s becoming more popular and mainstream because of physique,” says Jim White, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian with studios in Virginia. “It’s to get the six-pack and muscles that they might not be able to get on their own.”
While the appeal is understandable – the products, when paired with the right diet and exercise plan, can increase muscle strength, body size and bone density, and improve the body’s ability to repair tissue, White says – steroid use comes at a steep cost to health, not to mention the legal risks and financial strain it presents (Cuban, for one, estimates spending up to $500 a month on the drugs). In the short term, for instance, steroid use is linked to severe acne, baldness, infertility and impotence, to name a few side effects, White says. Plus, the ego-boost can be addictive. Long term, White adds, the products can lead to high blood pressure, circulatory problems, tumors, cancer and even death.
Some research has also linked long-term anabolic steroid use to memory problems, while other experts worry about the drugs’ impact on muscles like the heart. “Is it causing growth elsewhere that we don’t necessarily want growth?” says Chris Mohr, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian in Louisville, Kentucky. Plus, he adds, taking synthetic testosterone might hamper the body’s ability to make the hormone itself if and when a user wants to stop. “What if you accidentally shoot yourself in the foot?” he says.
Emotional side effects – namely, anger problems, suicidal thoughts and worse, action – are perhaps the most disturbing consequences for users. “It can not only wreck your health,” White says, “but also others all around.”
A Troubling Trend
People have used appearance and performance-enhancing drugs – such as anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, unregulated dietary supplements or some combination of the substances – to help build muscle for “decades,” says White, who is also a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While use seems to be most common among competitive bodybuilders – 54 percent of whom take steroids, one study found – it’s hardly limited to that population. Some 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-old men say they or someone they know has taken steroids or human growth hormone, according to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an organization that formed after its namesake committed suicide following anabolic steroid use. And they’re not the youngest: 2 million kids in middle school and high school admit to using steroids for appearance and performance, while 11 percent of high school students say they’ve used human growth hormone, the foundation reports. “It’s a problem,” Cuban says. “Steroids can destroy our youth.”
Recreational gym-goers of all ages, meanwhile, can access them illicitly at 15 to 30 percent of gyms and health clubs, White says. And older populations seem to be increasingly drawn to such products peddled at “anti-aging” clinics, Mohr says. “[People are] trying to keep that whole ‘fountain of youth’ type thing,” he says. “I see a lot more of that than the younger audience.”
Then there’s the location factor. Whether men are aspiring models in Los Angeles or are just looking forward to a guy’s getaway in Miami, the allure of appearance-enhancing drugs can be, well, strong. “Areas where looking great can help you get a job, blend in [and] maybe find a partner” can be hot spots for use, White says.
Even use of legal bodybuilding supplements such as creatine and whey protein are near ubiquitous, says Richard Achiro, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California. While such products can be used responsibly, he says, they’re often not. Achiro’s study presented last year, for instance, found that 22 percent of men who use muscle-building supplements regularly reported using them in place of meals (even though they’re not intended as meal replacements); 40 percent reported increasing their use of the products over time; and 29 percent said they were concerned about their use.
“A good percentage of them … did indeed show risky use of legal supplements,” says Achiro, noting that the men who were most likely to abuse the products were also most likely to have low self-esteem and to subscribe to more traditional, rigid deas of what it means to be a man. He speculates that the uptick in men’s concern about their appearance is related in part to shifting gender roles – something manufacturers are taking advantage of. “Now that men are feeling inferior in the workplace or in other contexts … they’re turning to [appeareance-enhancing products] to make their bodies look really good,” he says. “What we typically see in women is beginning to materialize in men.”
A Better Way to Bigger Muscles
It wasn’t until Cuban woke up after a two-day drug- and alcohol-induced blackout and was taken to a psychiatric facility by his now-fiancé in 2007 that he turned the corner to clean living – steroid use included. Even an earlier, severe staph infection that almost cost him his leg couldn’t completely convince him that he had a problem, despite the fact that he’d caused the infection by injecting steroids with a dirty needle.
“I have physical problems today that will never go away,” he says, including heart issues and a left leg that goes “fairly numb” during exercise. For him, long-term therapy that addressed his underlying self-doubts – as well as his depression, addictions, disordered eating and body image problems – was the ticket to recovery. “The more I learned, ‘I’m OK whatever I looked like,’ the less I felt like I needed to change my body,” says Cuban, who continues to see a therapist, practice mindfulness and spin to stay healthy.
Seeing a mental health professional for steroid or other appearance-enhancing drugs can help the men, who, like Cuban, rely on them to cope with underlying mental health conditions or insecurities, Achiro says. Among the men whose use of legal supplements is risky, he says, “this really is an expression of eating disorder behavior.”
Even if such products’ use isn’t tied to body image or other psychological issues, it’s important to remember that there are much healthier – not to mention legal – ways to build muscle, fitness professionals say. Namely, eating a healthy diet with plenty of protein, following a strength-training program and even sometimes taking supplements like whey protein that are used with appropriate guidance, White says.
“It may take longer, but we can live longer and have a better quality of life” without adding illegal, risky substances to the mix, White says. “It can be done the right way.”