Competitive Sports Threaten Girls With Eating Disorders
> 11/5/2007 10:17:40 AM

Despite the litany of health issues bettered by regular exercise, strenuous workouts may prove dangerous to patients affected by major eating disorders, especially when they take the form of intense and competitive cardiovascular activities like varsity long distance running. The unfortunate workout/disorder equation, which we've covered before at Anxiety, Addiction and Depression Treatments, works both ways: runners can develop eating disorders as a result of the supposed performance benefits of low body weight while those with pre-existing dietary issues use their workouts as yet another tool to satisfy their irrational and potentially fatal fear of weight gain. These pathological concerns do not necessarily amount to anorexia or bulimia, but the absence of a particularly common label does not negate the physical and psychological damage they entail.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in an expansive report this weekend, girls who run competitively are particularly susceptible to the "female athlete triadódisordered eating, osteoporosis (loss of bone mass) and amenorrhea (loss of menstruation)," in addition to "anemia (red blood cell deficiency), abnormally slow heart rate and heart, kidney and liver damage." Unlike sports such as wrestling in which weight plays a significant role in competition, wiry and very thin bodies are the natural results of competitive running, particularly that of the long-distance variety, and low BMIs very often go unnoticed; discerning eating disorders based on appearance alone may prove surprisingly difficult in a field where low body weight makes for optimum performance. But the consecutive deaths of three weight-obsessed college wrestlers one decade ago highlight the dangers of the extreme measures some athletes take in order to maintain their ideal weight; though more prevalent among young women, these problems are not unique to female athletes.

Some coaches have voiced concern over putting runners on the scale and emphasizing their weight, especially when the runners in question are high-school and college-aged girls who already face the nearly unbearable stresses of adolescent and peer acceptance every day. But NCAA reports have previously noted more incidents of anorexia and bulimia among female cross country teams than in any other discipline. The success and praise that accompany victory on the course often serve to reinforce the appeal of dramatic weight loss. In the midst of such adulation, athletes can dismiss their eating disorders by pointing to their athletic success as evidence of their superior health.
Studies often prove unreliable as athletes are even more reluctant than most to report eating disorders, most likely due to the emphasis on personal discipline and physical endurance that so often characterize competitive sports. The 2005 death of a track champion due to complications related to anorexia led to a brief nationwide focus on the issues raised by the dietary patterns of competitive athletes, providing a tragic examples of the damages wrought by the unfortunate meeting of competition and disordered eating. At the time of her death, Alex Devinny was 20 years old, 5"8' tall, and weighed only 70 pounds.

Very well-trained, professional runners whose positions depend on very strict training and nutritional guidelines have been known to collapse and, in the most extreme cases, die while training or running in competition. Though their injuries often stem from medical complications and pre-existing conditions, they clearly illustrate the severe strain often forced upon the body by such demanding activity. Singling runners out for their weight, even if they need to gain rather than lose body mass, may prove disruptive in a population already obsessed with the very same. Even though many eating-disorder patients will be proud of their weight loss, admonishments may only serve to reinforce the obsession and will probably not deter the deep-seated dissatisfaction so crucial to active eating disorders. The health of each individual athlete is ultimately far more important than team victory or record-setting performances. In a discipline so susceptible to problem cases, coaches should pay a little more attention to the habits of their runners and report suspected eating disorders to sports therapists or mental health professionals. The young women under their supervision may initially resent these actions, but such interventions have the potential to save lives.

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