Fall sports season is just beginning, and young women today enjoy a huge variety of sport. The many positive physical and psychological benefits of exercise and sports participation are well-known, but can these activities sometimes go too far and cause damage? Some female athletes may be exercising at an intensity that puts them at risk for one or more conditions that combine to form the female athlete triad: disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteopororsis.
Disordered eating describes a behavior that may or may not require a specific eating disorder diagnosis, but nevertheless results in not eating enough calories to keep up with energy demands. Disordered eating may include behavior such as preoccupation or feelings of guilt related to food, chronic weight fluctuations, avoidance of certain types of food, rigid routines related to food and exercise. Inability to supply the calories to meet the energy demanded of the sport can result in substandard performance and further compound the problem.
Amenorrhea refers to the absence or suppression of menstruation. Not eating enough calories can disrupt the hormone regulation of the menstrual cycle to the point where menstruation becomes irregular or stops altogether.
Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones exhibited by low bone mineral density, due to poor nutrition and lower calcium uptake, resulting in decreased estrogen levels. Osteoporosis puts the athlete at greater risk of stress fractures and other injuries that can stall or derail her athletic career.
Other Factors For younger athletes (both female and male), specializing in a single sport early on can also be a risk factor, whether that risk is repetitive overuse injuries or burnout and discouragement from a culture that gets too competitive, performance-driven or over-scheduled at too young an age. Try not to dismiss your young athlete’s complaints and look for signs such as lack of attention to schoolwork, fatigue, or disordered eating. Encourage your young athlete to participate in a variety of physical activity, including just free play.
Sports that place a larger concern on weight class or the size and shape of the body or a highly competitive attitude or culture can contribute to an environment that puts athletes at greater risk. Watch for signs and symptoms in your female athlete such as weight loss with continued dieting, no period or irregular period, fatigue and decreased the ability to concentrate, stress fractures and/or brittle hair or nails along with sensitivity to cold. Coaches and parents can help establish a culture that supports normal eating. Suggesting body weight be reduced to gain an edge normally decreases performance in the long run. Refer to a medical professional if one or more aspects of the triad are evident, or a sports dietitian for help creating a plan for appropriate caloric and food intake.
If you have any questions or concerns about what level of exercise and training is appropriate for your young athlete, please give us a call at 815-758-5508!