Doping was in the news again during the Rio 2016 Olympics. Drug taking to enhance athletic performance is universally understood to be contrary to the ethos of sport competition. In the world of elite sports there is constant development in both the testing and identification of performance enhancing substances to counter it. However, doping use is also emerging as a threat in the field of amateur and fitness sports, and adolescents and young adults represent particularly vulnerable populations.
Professor Andrea Petroczi, a leading researcher in understanding doping behaviour and developing intervention strategies, continues her internationally recognised work at Kingston University through a number of projects. Her research has contributed significantly to the understanding of doping behaviour and to developing intervention strategies and materials to deter athletes from doping.
Recent research has identified an increase in the use of doping substances in amateur and fitness sports. Unlike professional and competitive sports, the amateur and fitness sports industry lacks comprehensive approaches and strategies to prevent doping use. The huge rise in amateur events in the UK has coincided with an increasing number of amateur athletes being banned from competition, despite the limited testing arrangements. Beyond doping testing, the widespread availability, aggressive marketing and lack of regulatory checks also present a risk of health harm, especially for young people.
The scale and impact of the use of doping substances in amateur and fitness sports, as well as the drivers for taking these substances, needs to be understood. Habitual use of acceptable performance enhancement practices (e.g. nutritional supplements) may lead on to using prohibited substances. Petroczi's research has also focused on the amateur and fitness sports industry as a whole, considering how doping may be seen as a functional (to do better, going faster, stronger and higher) rather than moral choice (to cheat by gaining unfair advantage).
Turning these findings into rules of good practice and better information and education on doping substances is particularly relevant in recreational and fitness sport. Here, WADA anti-doping rules do not serve as a deterrent. In the absence of competition, where doping is prohibited to ensure a fair and level playing field, the use of these substances is driven to enhance human performance, experience or image and not to gain an edge over the opponent.
In 2014, a consortium of global experts, including Petroczi, joined forces through the ERASMUS+ funded SAFE YOU (Strengthening the Anti-doping Fight in Fitness and Exercise in Youth) project to address this disparity. To develop an evidence-based online educational tool and mobile app to support young exercisers in fitness and amateur sports avoiding harm from performance and image-enhancing substance use.
The SAFE YOU Projects adopt a non-judgemental approach to performance and image enhancing substance use. The core concept Petroczi brought to the SAFE YOU project is that the use of performance or appearance enhancing substances, just like doping in elite sport, is a goal oriented behaviour. It is motivated by some desirable goals, such as muscle growth or fat loss, and typically characterised by incremental involvement over a length of time. Therefore, prevention must start at the grassroots level and with the role of dietary supplements in performance or image enhancement. SAFE YOU will culminate in a Europe-wide launch of the new online tool in December 2016.
The Internet offers excellent opportunities for reaching adolescents and young adults. Equally, it also presents a danger because information and doping substances are readily available on the Internet with limited or no control. Therefore, the SAFE YOU Project adopts a pragmatic approach of empowering young people to make informed decisions about these substances.
Empowerment through increase in health literacy is an important part of health promotion and, as captured in the figure below, it presents a feasible and useful approach for the SAFE YOU Tool.
In addition to the SAFE YOU Information App, the project has designed a series of workshop plans, each focusing on a specific reason that underpins performance- and image enhancing drug use. It will also serve as a comprehensive source of support for teachers, coaches and instructors responsible for anti-doping education; a training programme is due to start being rolled out in late 2016.
"The unique aspect of the SAFE YOU Project was that we involved young people in designing the SAFE YOU TOOL. This way we could provide help in a way that is meaningful and useful to those we intend to help - the vulnerable population of adolescents and young adults who may come across or even be offered these substances without having the knowledge or easy access to accurate, trustworthy and easily digestible information on these substances. Such approach exists for psychoactive drugs. It was timely to address 'sport drugs' as a public health concern." says Petroczi
The SAFE YOU programme received additional funding to continue the work beyond 2016 for an additional two years. The SAFE YOU+ project will extend the previous project by enriching the tool, adapting the tool to amateur competitive athletes, further developing the mobile application and establishing a European-wide strategic partnership. The partnership between academic institutions and sports organizations will enable innovative pedagogical approaches to be employed in engaging adolescent and young athletes in anti-doping campaigns (SAFE YOU+ Tool) to influence their doping-related beliefs more effectively.
The SAFE YOU (Strengthening the Anti-doping Fight in Fitness and Exercise in Youth) is funded by ERASMUS+ programme.
Motto: "Understand your body. Understand your substances."