The particular health consequences of the female athlete
What is the female athlete triad? Doc Smitty gives the answer
Track season is up and running and many of our junior high and high school athletes are training themselves to run faster and jump higher. Physical activity is clearly beneficial for our students. It can lead to increased health, decreased risky behaviors and decreased risk for depression.
Even highly competitive and high intensity training can be healthy, but can it become unhealthy?
One of the dangers of intense training can be a lack of food intake to keep up with the demands of the sport. Have you seen the pictures of food in front of Olympic swimmers? They often eat up to 10,000 calories per day. Yet, our young teenage athletes, in an attempt to manage their weight or achieve a particular body image sometimes cut calories to levels even below their less active peers.
This is when their health could be in danger.
Certain sports may put athletes at higher risk to engaging in unhealthy behaviors. Think about those where body image plays a large role such as dance or gymnastics. Those competing in sports that classify participants based on weight class can also be at risk. Even participants in sports that don’t fall into these categories can have pressure put on them to “lose a few pounds” in order to improve.
These problems can arise in boys and girls, but girls can have particular health consequences that need to be considered.
What is the female athlete triad?
- Energy deficiency (not eating enough food)
- Loss of periods
- Low bone mass (osteoporosis)
Energy deficiency -This can be the result of simply not consuming enough food or it can be a conscious method to decrease calorie intake for weight loss. In more severe cases it can be the results of an abnormal body image or an eating disorder.
Loss of periods -The calorie deficiency can lead to decreased production of hormones that help periods to be regular. This can lead to missed periods or for periods to stop altogether. Missed periods are often the symptom that brings attention to the overall problem. Because of this, I recommend you check in with your athletes intermittently about their periods. Despite the weird and embarrassed look on faces (it translates, “Mom, can you believe he’s asking this?”), I ask at every check-up.
Low bone mass - Decreased hormones and intake of calcium can lead to thinning of the bones. When severe, this can cause stress fractures, which are fractures that occur with very little or no trauma. In addition, girls are supposed to building up bone density in this time frame and the long term implications of not doing so could have severe consequences.
What can you do?
Pay attention to your athletes and their eating habits.
If you see any of the following, set up a visit with your pediatrician to address your concerns:
- Weight loss or disorder eating habits.
- Irregular periods or no periods.
- Injuries from mild activity or that tend to linger.
Together you and your pediatrician can gather a team around your athlete to ensure their health for now and into the future.
Some potential members of the team could include a:
- Coach or trainer