Posted by William on May 24, 2012
What’s that? You’re a female athlete and you’ve never heard of the female athlete triad? You didn’t know that excessive training and exercise can lead to serious health problems like disordered eating, not getting your periods, and thinning bones?
If you’ve never heard of this disorder you can’t afford to miss this column. The health risks are far too serious.
Girls, Women and Sports
The last few decades have seen more and more girls and women participating in organized sports and competing at many different levels. That’s a good thing, since the benefits of regular physical activity are well known and include improved physical fitness, better health and longer life.
That’s why all women, and all men for that matter, should keep physically fit at all stages of their lives.
So if exercise and sports are good, what’s the problem? The problem is this: During puberty, boys pack on muscle mass and are encouraged to gain weight to improve their sports performance. Girls, on the other hand, normally gain body fat during puberty but, unlike boys, are encouraged to shed pounds and decrease body fat to improve their performance and appearance.
Not only can losing too much weight actually make a girl’s sports performance worse, but it can also set up a tug-of-war between how nature wants her body to develop and how she may want her body to develop. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a normal interest in maintaining a healthy weight, but some girls, athletes in particular, may carry this interest too far.
For the female athlete, that pressure to lose weight may come from her coach, trainer, agent, parents and from herself. Add that to the pressures she faces during her vulnerable adolescent years — when she is bombarded with messages from society that she has to be thin to be sexy and desirable — and you get some idea of the problem that can develop.
If the athlete can handle that pressure by exercising appropriately and eating nutritiously in order to achieve a reasonable weight for her chosen sport, that’s fine.
But if she can’t deal with that pressure, she may resort to disordered eating behaviors — often done in secret — and excessive training and exercise, all of which can lead to the female athlete triad and its devastating consequences.
What Exactly Is the Female Athlete Triad?
The female athlete triad, a term coined by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in 1992, consists of three related components:
amenorrhea (loss of menstrual periods)
osteoporosis (loss of bone mineral density)
Who Is at Risk?
The American College of Sports Medicine, in its 1997 position on the female athlete triad, states that potentially all physically active girls and women could be at risk for developing one or more components of the triad.
The ACSM outlined the following sports with emphases on low body weight, in which participating female athletes are at risk for developing the triad:
Sports in which performance is subjectively scored (dance, figure skating, diving, gymnastics and aerobics).
Endurance sports emphasizing a low body weight (distance running, cycling and cross-country skiing).
Sports requiring body contour-revealing clothing for competition (volleyball, swimming, diving, cross-country running, cross-country skiing,
track and cheerleading).
Sports using weight categories for participation (horse racing, some martial arts, wrestling and rowing).
Sports emphasizing a prepubertal body habitus (looking like a child) for performance success (figure skating, gymnastics and diving).
Male athletes may also be at risk for developing disordered eating and osteoporosis.