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January Gym Rush: But experts issue warning as body dysmorphia and steroid use rise in UK

  • “Normalised” use of image and performance-enhancing drugs (IPEDs) puts users at risk
  • Priory experts issue warning for New Year fitness resolutions
  • Visible ‘roid rage’ is rare, so addicts can suffer without loved ones noticing signs

The UK is in danger of a hidden anabolic steroid addiction crisis, according to addiction experts at Priory, the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health care.

Image and performance-enhancing drugs (IPEDS) are becoming widely used in the UK, predominantly by young men, as a convenient and readily-obtainable means of obtaining the widely-advertised body shape. Anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS’s) have become the performance enhancing “drugs of choice”. These are synthetic derivatives of the male hormone testosterone and can exert strong effects on the body.

Dr William Shanahan, clinical director of addictions at Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, says: “Ten years ago there were an estimated 50,000 users of image and performance-enhancing drugs in the UK, but we suspect this number may now be rocketing above 500,000. There is a lack of clear data, and the initial health impact on users is hard to spot for friends and relatives. My fear is we are sleepwalking into a health crisis, especially for young men.”

At least 92% of anabolic steroids users are male. There are thousands of different drug options available, and can be injected into a muscle, taken by mouth as tablets, or applied to the skin as creams or gels. They are classified as Class C drugs which means it is not illegal to possess them for personal use. While they should only be issued by pharmacists to patients with a prescription, users commonly find alternative, easy access to the steroids.  

Dr Shanahan said: “Users do not see themselves on a par with the stereotypical drug addict. They are often employed, with ordered lives and nice homes. They see themselves as engaging in a healthy lifestyle choice. The primary goal is to achieve a more attractive body. Many people don’t realise the dangers, or the severity of the consequences.

“Anabolic steroid use carries a myriad of health risks. The so called ‘roid rage’ is not actually very common, unless steroids are mixed with alcohol. The impact for users is usually much less visible – from muscle damage to neurological damage – making it harder for friends and family to spot, intervene and support an addict.

“Users suffer from increased anxiety levels, depression and impaired cognitive abilities. There are physical health dangers too, from increased acne and hair loss to erectile dysfunction and fertility issues, development of male breasts, heart problems, liver damage, kidney damage, damage to the nervous system, prostate cancer, and so much more.

“We’ve become much more conscious in the UK about the widespread media depiction of unattainable body images for women, but we need to raise more awareness of body dysmorphia for young men. The increasingly lean and muscular body type displayed in the media rarely exists in nature.”

A 2019 report by UK Anti-Doping said people who use IPEDs put themselves at risk of substantial harm to their health. “Regularly taking anabolic steroids can lead to physical and psychological changes, as well as potentially dangerous medical conditions. According to the 2016 National IPED Survey, 18% of participants who had injected reported that they had reused their own injecting equipment, and 15% reported that they had shared a multi-dose drug vial. It is important to consider IPED use as both a consequence of mental health pressure, and as a possible contributor to exacerbating symptoms.”

As many as 10 million people in the UK are members of a gym or fitness club. January 2023 may see gym memberships return to pre-Covid levels and beyond, to reach an all-time high in the UK, according to industry statistics. In Europe, only Germany has more health and fitness club members.

Dr David McLaughlan, visiting consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital Roehampton, said: “We cannot speak highly enough of the benefits of exercise for our physical and mental health. January is a great time of year for inspiring a health kick. But as we set those new year resolutions, it’s vital that we set realistic and healthy goals. Focus on a realistic body image. If in doubt, seek professional medical advice.

“If you’re already taking anabolic steroids and are trying to reduce your intake, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Medical support can help you.”

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services and behavioral care, supporting more than 25,000 people every year, for more than 70 different conditions, across more than 300 facilities nationwide.

A free, NHS endorsed app, My Possible Self, created in partnership with Priory, offers a range of visual and audio exercises to help you manage your mental health, including activities to boost your mood, self-esteem, relax your mind and promote sleep, as well as journals to record worries and emotions, including around image, as they occur.




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Sources: UKAD IPED Report FINAL.pdf

About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions including depression, anxiety, addictions, and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support adults with complex autism, learning disabilities, as well as older people, as a leading provider of specialist residential care and supported living – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of MEDIAN, one of Europe’s leading providers of high-quality mental health and medical rehabilitative services. Overall there are 427 facilities in the MEDIAN Group, comprising 306 Priory facilities with 5,352 beds in the United Kingdom, and 121 facilities and 19,200 beds in Germany, caring for around 260,000 people, with 35,000 employees.

MEDIAN manages patients who have experienced symptoms of COVID-19 and/or Long COVID and shares information for medical professionals at

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