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Blame Paul Ryan for Your Son’s Workout Addiction

Just in time for the holidays, the New York Times has a new trend for us to worry about: boys pumping endless iron and popping protein pills to get big and cut:

It is not just girls these days who are consumed by an unattainable body image.  Take David Abusheikh. At age 15, he started lifting weights for two hours a day, six days a week. Now that he is a senior at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, he has been adding protein bars and shakes to his diet to put on muscle without gaining fat. “I didn’t used to be into supplements,” said Mr. Abusheikh, 18, who plans on a career in engineering, “but I wanted something that would help me get bigger a little faster.”

Pediatricians are starting to sound alarm bells about boys who take unhealthy measures to try to achieve Charles Atlas bodies that only genetics can truly confer. Whether it is long hours in the gym, allowances blown on expensive supplements or even risky experiments with illegal steroids, the price American boys are willing to pay for the perfect body appears to be on the rise. In a study to be published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics, more than 40 percent of boys in middle school and high school said they regularly exercised with the goal of increasing muscle mass. Thirty-eight percent said they used protein supplements, and nearly 6 percent said they had experimented with steroids. Over all, 90 percent of the 1,307 boys in the survey — who lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but typify what doctors say is a national phenomenon — said they exercised at least occasionally to add muscle.

“There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the last 30 years,” said Dr. Harrison Pope, a psychiatry professor at Harvard who studies bodybuilding culture and was not involved in the study. The portrayal of men as fat-free and chiseled “is dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago,” he said.

The Times fingers an obvious cuprit--the muscleheads on TV: "Many of these boys probably see themselves in Mike Sorrentino, 'The Situation' from the 'Jersey Shore' series on MTV, or the Adam Sackler character, on the HBO series 'Girls,' who rarely wears a shirt or takes a break from his crunches."

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But before we lay all the blame on The Situation, it's worth noting that the muscle-head mindset has infected a more rarefied realm of American life as well: Beltway Washington.

There is, for instance, the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president, who is famous for leading sessions of the rigorous P90X workout regimen on Capitol Hill, who posed as your standard frathouse gym rat in photos published just weeks before the election and who prompted nine times more Googling of "Paul Ryan Shirtless" than "Paul Ryan Budget." And yes, he is pumping up musclehead business with the broader public:

When it comes to free celebrity endorsements, they don’t get much better than a presumptive vice-presidential candidate who swears by your product. Such is the windfall for P90X, a workout DVD getting a surge of publicity ever since Representative Paul D. Ryan was picked to be Mitt Romney’s running mate. The fit 42-year-old congressman is a hard-core fan of the workout regime and is even reputed to have gotten other congressman hooked. That has generated all kinds of headlines, not usually reserved for a late-night infomercial fixture. “The P90x VP,” declared The Washington Post. “Paul Ryan’s Extreme Workout Plan,” trumpeted The Daily Beast. “Ryan’s fitness regimen is not for the faint of heart,” warned USA Today.

“It certainly helps,” said Tony Horton, 54, a physical trainer from Santa Monica, Calif., who created the workout. Like a seasoned politician, Mr. Horton reached for a stump-worthy lesson. “The summertime is slow, so all this attention, it’s going to help us a lot.”

But it's not just Ryan. Let us not forget Chris Lee, who served alongside Ryan in Congress until this headline appeared on Gawker: "Married GOP Congressman Sent Sexy Pictures to Craigslist Babe." And not just any sexy pictures: well-built torso pictures! After advertising himself as a "fit fun classy guy."[emphasis mine].

On the other side of the aisle, there was of course Anthony Weiner, whose impressive waxed chest was overshadowed only by his later, um, below the belt shots.

Then there's Fred Humphries, who will forever be known as the "shirtless FBI agent" after sending photos of his bare torso to Tampa socialite-turned-honorary consul Jill Kelley.

We lament often that young people today are totally checked out of politics and current affairs. But when it comes to their protein-shake-chugging, they may well be taking more cues from their national leaders than we realize.

Addendum: A reader notes that I somehow overlooked the most obvious example of Capitol Hill's body-building fixation: Aaron Schock, the young Illinois Republican whose pecs and abs were actually on the cover of Men's Health.

Addendum II: Another poli-hunk I overlooked: Scott Brown, who went one step further than his future colleagues in touting his well-sculpted form.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis