SINGAPORE: For John*, gym workouts have been part of his life since his early teens.
At first, the 21-year-old was content to let hard work build up his muscles. But four years ago, his desire to have a body he was proud to show off led him to experiment with anabolic steroids, which can accelerate muscle growth.
Within a couple of years of taking steroids, he took part in his first junior bodybuilding contest while studying at polytechnic. And although his career in competitive bodybuilding only lasted three contests, he has continued to take steroids to maintain his muscle mass.
Recent Instagram selfies show the results, as he posed in pictures showing his massively bulging deltoids and biceps, as well as his six-pack abdominals.
However, taking steroids has come at a cost.
“For my first competition, I got a lot of wrong information and as a result I took certain steroids that caused me to lack sleep,” said John, who is now a full-time National Serviceman. “I simply couldn’t sleep for a whole week, no matter how hard I tried.”
Sleeplessness was only part of the problem: “My blood pressure was so high, I had problems breathing and was always panting. I didn’t know why, and I thought it was because I didn’t do cardiovascular exercises.
“I realised much later that it was because someone told me to take certain steroids which exceeded the ‘safe’ doses.”
TEEN STEROID USE HAS BECOME WIDESPREAD: LOCAL FITNESS INSTRUCTORS
John is not the only young person venturing into the world of injectable and oral anabolic steroids to develop big and defined muscles. More teens have apparently been tempted by the fast gains that steroids offer in terms of muscle size and definition.
Ten local gym managers, personal trainers and bodybuilders that Channel NewsAsia spoke to over a month-long period confirmed this trend.
“It’s quite rampant actually. I know of quite a number of young gym goers who have picked up steroid use,” said Allen*, a gym manager at a 24-hour gym in Singapore.
Another gym manager, Dex*, said it is common to see used steroid ampoules lying around in changing room dustbins. “It’s quite prevalent among gym users in Singapore for sure.”
"It’s an indication that some of our clients are using steroids,” said Dex, who oversees a 24-hour gym in the west of Singapore.
“But ever since we’ve put up a sign that says ‘No steroid use allowed in our gym’, we’re seeing fewer items like syringes and ampoules in our bins,” he added.
And there are other clear signs of steroid use, said Dex. “I’ve seen guys that are only 18 and their bodies are already like Arnold Schwarzenegger's! They have deformities that make the person look older than 18.”
He added that although some young bodybuilders deny using steroids, their abnormally overdeveloped muscles can only come from using them. "They won’t admit that they use it, but we all know they do.”
According to John, teen steroid users have limited awareness of the potential side effects of using steroids. Often, young users will turn to their suppliers for advice on how to take steroids - and few of them have any proper medical knowledge. But that is no problem in his circle of acquaintances. “Even my sister – who is 15 – has friends who are using and asking where they can get their hands on certain anabolic steroids.
"I’m very worried, not just because they’re young, but more because they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.”
EASE OF PURCHASE
It is illegal to sell or supply prescription-only medicines without a licence, but this is apparently no barrier for black market steroid dealers targeting teen users.
“It’s often the ITE and Polytechnic fitness enthusiasts who are using it,” said gym manager Allen*.
“In fact, I heard of a senior bodybuilder in my gym who scolded one of the pushers, as they were selling to these kids who did not know any better about the side effects,” said the 30-year-old.
“Many of these pushers only want to sell, and do not care what would happen to these kids. It is quite common in fact for young fitness buffs from ages 17 to 18 onwards to take such performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).”
For those users who do not want to buy in person, there are various online portals selling injectable and oral steroids like Deca-durabolin, Anavar, Trenbolone and Winstrol.
Some websites also provide home deliveries. Said an online distributor, in response to an email query from Channel NewsAsia: “We deliver our products to personal trainers personally once a week, or through trackable post either from Singapore or Malaysia.”
Another search on Instagram and Carousell also revealed several other anabolic steroid sellers. Online forums also offered advice on how to use such substances effectively and ‘safely’.
"For youths, steroid use is a big problem because it’s now easily available. You can buy things online or from unscrupulous dealers who want to make a quick buck," said Andrew Johnson, who has been in the local fitness scene for a number of years. "There is no denying that performance enhancing drugs are tempting to youths. Everyone wants to get bigger, faster and stronger.
"However, young people today do not understand what these will do to their bodies," said Johnson, who was a judge at last month's Natural Bodybuilding & Fitness Association contest.
He added: "It’s different for men and women. Guys wanna be macho, have big arms and that sort of thing. But for women, they are doing it because they want to lose weight and look fitter.
"Either way, they don’t know what are the side effects."
At least 10 bodybuilders Channel NewsAsia spoke to, however, played down the potential health impact, claiming to know about ‘safe doses’ which mitigate side effects like back acne, gynecomastia (male breast enlargement) and heart irregularities.
“Among the common side-effects for steroid misuse is having man boobs, due to the body’s production of female hormones (estrogen) to balance out the synthetic testosterone one injects into your body,” said Paul*, a former user of Clenbuterol.
However, he added that there are anti-estrogens available on the black market to counteract these side-effects.
Meanwhile, gym-goer John had teen friends who had reported blood abnormalities from prolonged steroid use. “They asked me, have you experienced having black blood?,” he recounted.
“I’d then ask ‘Dark red or black blood?’ and they’d reply ‘black’. They don’t know that when blood is black, it means their body lacks oxygen and that their heart is not working very well.”
For John, his use of steroids over a number of years has also led to hair loss. “That’s because both my parents are genetically predisposed to hair loss. My use of (steroids) has accelerated this even further,” said John, who has regular blood tests with his doctor to manage other side-effects.
While some users believe they know how to take steroids safely, cardiologist Dr Ong Hee Yean from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital suggested that is not possible. “There is no safe dosage. The dose which is required for effective change in muscle appearance or improvement in performance will almost always lead to side effects.”
Having treated a bodybuilder who was taking steroids, Dr Ong recalled the patient’s lack of health despite his fit appearance. “I had to manage a young patient... who had heart failure induced by his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“Although he looked fit and muscular on the outside, his heart function was severely impaired inside and he would be breathless on exertion and found it hard to keep his job. He was at a very high risk of sudden death from irregular heart rhythms,” added Dr Ong.
In an email response to Channel NewsAsia, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) highlighted two major cases in the last five years involving steroid misuse: “In 2012, a male in his 20s developed fever, rashes, hepatitis and kidney injury after consuming an anabolic steroid and other body building supplements which he had purchased from the internet and overseas.
“More recently, a male in his 20s developed a heart attack and subsequently died from multi-organ failure and infections. The doctor reported that he was suspected to have been abusing a number of western drugs, including anabolic steroids,” it added.
While he was seeing remarkable progress in muscle size and definition from taking steroids, psychological side-effects crept up on John. “In my first contest I lost my relationship of three years and I blamed everything else but myself. Along the way, people started to notice my mood swings and asked me why I was so sad one moment, angry the next and suicidal soon after,” he said.
He then realised the cause of his mental issues. “At first I wasn’t sure, but when I was not using (steroids), I felt my mood getting better and everything else was more or less stable.
“What most people don’t know is also the mental side-effects that come with using these substances. Certain substances alter your brain chemistry – it doesn’t just affect your body but your mind as well."
Psychological issues are a little known but serious side effect of steroid misuse, according to Dr Richard Swinbourne, Head and Senior Sport Dietitian at the Singapore Sports Institute. “The health consequences of performance enhancing drug abuse are severe... Side effects are many and varied, and it includes psychiatric disorders, aggression… and depression.”
“It is strongly recommended to consult professionals for medical and nutritional advice if one is using or considering the use of PEDs, in the name of drug free sport and for their own health.”
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
Bodybuilding judge Andrew Johnson believes there should be more efforts to educate parents about the dangers of teen steroid usage. "There aren’t really parents who would sit down and talk to their teens about the use of anabolic steroids," he said.
He added: "At the youth sport level, the only sports that are dope-tested are Olympic events like athletics, swimming and so on. Even then, only the cream of the crop - the elite level youth athletes - are subjected to random testing by Anti-Doping Singapore."
Johnson also thinks widening the net for dope testing would deter youths from trying steroids at the start of their sporting journey. "I’d like to see more random dope testing at the under-21 level, across all sports in Singapore, regardless if they’re a sanctioned sport covered under the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or sports activities that do not fall under the care of Sport Singapore.
"At the end of the day, youths should think for themselves and ask: 'Why are they taking these substances?' They should think long-term for their health and not for short-term gains and certainly not for S$5 medals."
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.