From London Olympians to neighborhood coaches and parents,
young athletes will always look to emulate their athletic
heroes. And at such an impressionable age, any hint
that an adolescent needs a performance enhancement product
to boost their athletic performance can have a strong
impact, according to UNCG faculty member Dr. Mike
an associate professor in the Department of Public
Health Education, was part of a research team that
surveyed young athletes, finding that more than a million
children and adolescents reported using some sort of
dietary supplement to enhance their athletic performance.
The mean age of responders who said they used supplements
to perform better in sports - 10.8 years old -
surprised researchers, Perko said. "I thought it would be
higher, around 13-14 years old."
Perko's research over the last two decades finds that if a
young athlete saw a parent or coach taking supplements or
encouraging their use, the athlete was more likely to seek
out those products. "Far and away, the most powerful
influencer is the parent," he said. "Kids are highly
motivated to impress people. Our study also points
out that 10 year olds are not driving themselves to health
food stores to buy these products."
Almost all of the products mentioned in the research can be
bought at run-of-the-mill stores and are easier to obtain
than you may imagine, Perko said. Some are marketed
directly to adolescents, even kids as young as 4 years old.
"You can buy most of these products at gas stations, at
Walmart. People think of them as harmless." But for
children that young, the use of supplements raises
concerns. "You're taking something probably not under the
supervision of a pediatrician and you may have drug
interactions. There may be some interaction, but the
problem is, we don't know what that is."
And while a product's packaging may promise results, the
dietary supplement industry is largely self-regulated
rather than accountable to an agency such as the Federal
Drug Administration, adding to the need for caution. "It's
really up to consumers to do their research before they
take it," Perko said. Supplements can contain ingredients
with no long-term evidence to indicate whether the
contents are safe for kids to take, he added. "In
fact, most studies with these products are done on adults
and the big deal here is that kids are not little adults.
"My No. 1 goal in life is to make sure no children are
harmed and injured by someone trying to increase their
Going forward, the study gives researchers "a snapshot in
time of where we may potentially need to intervene," Perko
said. With the growing diversity in sports participation -
where students aren't just playing football, basketball,
baseball and softball but also turning to dance, BXM,
surfing and a wide range of non-traditional activities -
Perko said it's imperative that interventions are developed
that target specific sports.
"Every sport has a specific culture and we need to tailor
the message to that culture - the days of bringing in a
speaker to address 100 kids are over. And it looks
like we're going to have to start at a very young age."