Cautionary Note for Young Female Athletes

by Dr. SooMi Lee-Samuel MD

bigstock-Figure-SkaterMany decades ago, organized sports were synonymous with males; athletics were mostly made up of boys, not girls. Today, teen girls participating in sports is becoming more common.  On so many levels—physical and emotional health, positive self-esteem and body image, improved brain function – this is a positive trend. Every moment a young girl is exercising on a court or field, is a moment she is not sitting in front of a mirror obsessing about how imperfect she is.

However, the news is not all good. Certain sports or disciplines place young girls at a high risk for disordered eating, or an eating disorder.  These are sports involving endurance, such as long-distance running, or those that are judged such as ballet, diving, skating, cheerleading and gymnastics.  Any sport that necessitates a low weight and success is more appearance-based than performance-based can trigger these conditions. The problem only grows worse as the outfits these athletes wear shrink in size. The more skin showing, the more the girl must be lean.

In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, more than one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa.

In the most recent issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM5,) amenorrhea was eliminated from the criteria for anorexia. This was due to the fact that many males fall victim to this illness, and by default, amenorrhea doesn’t apply.  That, however, doesn’t mean it does not remain relevant. In young female athletes, the absence of, or discontinuation of, the menstrual cycle should be considered a serious red flag. No menses indicates the girl is under nourished. If that is the case, her bone health is at risk.  A recent study indicated that 90 percent of bone strength is acquired during the teen years. If she is under eating and over-exercising, her future skeletal health may be compromised. Although many negative ramifications of anorexia can be reversed, this is not the case with bones. A certain time frame exists to grow strong and healthy bones. Once that window closes, it remains closed.

Parents and coaches alike must realize that while success on the court or field is certainly desirable, jeopardizing a girl’s long-term health is just not worth it.

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