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Dr. Zorba Paster: No shortcuts to building muscle

August 3, 2018

David Stluka Portrait of Dr. Zorba Paster on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 in Oregon, Wis. (Photo by David Stluka)

I’m allergic to exercise. Don’t get me wrong, I exercise regularly. I walk the dog. I work out once or twice a week on my own and I go to a trainer who works me out more than I would ever would myself. I started this more than a decade ago when I looked in the mirror and saw those love handles really were love handles. No excuses, move on.

When I go to the gym, I see all sorts of guys who are pumping iron who are far stronger than I ever was. Buff and fit, they’re the picture of good health, fine specimens who should live a long, sweet life.

Except that some of them — 3 million of them, it turns out, in the U.S. — are taking anabolic steroids. These synthetic steroids, obtained illegally, are meant to plump up those muscles.

For many of these steroid users, there’s never a thought about side effects. Look good and you are good. But the truth is, looking good may not mean good health.

A recent article in the British Medical Journal showed just that. It was a report about a 60-year-old bodybuilder with a great body who had developed a bad heart, a cardiomyopathy, because of the junk he was taking.

Anabolic steroids are synthetic derivatives of testosterone that we doctors use to treat people with muscle-wasting disease, HIV infection and anemias caused by bone marrow or kidney failure, among other things. But they are also often used by athletes to boost muscle mass in hopes of giving them a competitive advantage. As noted before, an estimated 3 million Americans abuse them.

Is this just a little dumb? Or is this big-time stupid? You decide.

In this particular case, the 60-year-old was admitted to intensive care with severe breathing difficulties after contracting pneumonia. Because he was training for a weight-lifting competition, he had been taking very high doses of testosterone and, get this, receiving illegal stem-cell infusions from his trainer — who was unlicensed and, in my mind, a bad-news guy.

Testing showed the patient had an enlarged heart, stretched muscles that couldn’t do their work and were — and remain to this day — electrically impaired. He is now on a pacemaker, drugs to try to get his heart to pump more and other drugs to get his short-circuited heart to simmer down. He also was given instructions for exercise, ordered not to do too much as he might injure his heart more.

Now, if you take something like the best-selling supplement Muscle Milk, it contains milk proteins such as caseinate, potassium, calcium with some sodium. Nothing to harm you. If you take a muscle energy drink that contains ephedrine, that’s a different story. That’s a stay-away drug.

The point is, read the label and do some research. Go to the product website if you don’t know the ingredients and then make a decision. There are safe supplements and dangerous ones.

My spin: If you want big muscles, you need to work to get big muscles. Short-cut steroids are dangerous things. Stay well.

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