Dr. Mike Perko, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health Education at UNCG, was part of a research team that surveyed young athletes to find 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,” he said.
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.”
The research, quite possibly the largest of its kind ever to look at young athletes and performance enhancers, was published in the article “Dietary Supplement Use by Children and Adolescents in the United States to Enhance Sport Performance: Results of the National Health Interview Survey” in The Journal of Primary Prevention.
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,” he said. 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 curveball.”
With the growing diversity in sports participation – where students aren’t just playing football, basketball, baseball and softball but also turning to dance, BMX, surfing and a wide range of non-traditional activities – Perko said it’s imperative that interventions are developed that target specific sports.