One in three gym users take drugs or supplements to lose weight – study

One in 20 use amphetamine for same purpose, survey reveals, with many feeling pressured to achieve a certain body image

More than 30% of gym-goers in the UK use some form of drug or dietary supplement to lose weight, a study has found, amid fears body image anxiety fuels a rise in the use of performance and image-enhancing drugs.

More than 5% of people who regularly attend gyms have gone further by using the illegal stimulant amphetamine for this purpose, according to researchers from the University of Hertfordshire, who have presented their preliminary findings to MPs.

Ornella Corazza, who led the research, links the trend to the rise in the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) and, with a ban on legal highs on the way, is warning that a profitable market may soon end up in the hands of organised crime.

Currently, with a legal market but lax regulation, many users are taking risks without realising. “The user does not consider himself a drug user as the trend is embedded in society,” Corazza said. “If you buy supplements or sexual enhancers, you think they’re good, you think they’re completely licit, but what we’re finding out is that it’s not always the case.”

Among early findings from the continuing research, passed on Monday to MPs considering the psychoactive substances bill, Corazza and her team found that 31% of gym-goers used products to lose weight, while 47% took them to reach fitness goals.

Results from questionnaires answered by 433 people, face to face in gyms or through an online survey targeted at fitness enthusiasts, showed that four-fifths claimed to care a lot about their physical appearance and almost half followed a diet. But many felt the pressure of such a lifestyle: more than a third said they often felt bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless during the past month.

The most commonly used products for weight loss were protein supplements (58%) and herbal products (34%), such as guarana, which contains high levels of caffeine, and ginseng. But to their alarm, the researchers also found an estimated 17% had used amphetamines, 17% had used thyroid hormones and 15% had tried diuretics.

An estimated 40% of those who used products purchased them online, and about 43% discovered them through online fitness forums or blogs. Many respondents said they saw the internet as a reliable source of information, Corazza said.

However, despite their online research, more than a quarter (28%) had experienced side-effects from their substance use, including skin problems, mood changes, headaches, diarrhoea, digestion problems, fast heart rate, irritability and sweating.

“There is a concern there about the way they look, the way they perform,” Corazza said. “So they try to do something, they try to find a quick fix, by buying these products online. This is the picture that is coming out.

“A change in legislation is essential, but at the same time we cannot neglect the need for more multidisciplinary studies to better understand the motivations behind this poorly understood phenomenon and respond to it in a more informed way.”

Dr Andres Roman-Urrestarazu, from the London School of Economics, who has co-authored the evidence to MPs, said: “The [psychoactive substances] bill so far has not been clear about how it will introduce minimum safety measures and harm reduction to the users of NPS. This is crucial, since we do not know the side-effects and safety profiles of most of these drugs.

“More than prohibition, we require broader policy measures that will give us information in regards to the growing number of NPS and how they are marketed online, what are their side-effects and how safe they are for human use.

“Also important is to consider the issue of NPS from a broader European perspective since restrictions and regulating in one country might produce the relocation of the business to a third country inside the EU. This is important, considering the parallel export market for drugs.”


Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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