Three Serious Health Risks for Girls and Young Women in Sports

More girls and young women are participating in sports these days. The Women’s Sports Foundation says since 1972 participation is up by 560 percent among high school girls. Among college women the growth has been 900 percent.

Training the body for the demands of a sport is an important part of athletics. Start the season with a medical evaluation. This ensures the athlete has clearance to train and participate.

A Concern for Active Females

Girls and young women face a specific health risk when active in sports — the Female Athlete Triad. This health concern involves three interrelated conditions.

  • Energy deficiency with or without disordered eating — Girls and active women can face pressure from internal or external sources to maintain a certain weight. To try to control their weight, some may employ unhealthy methods such as self-induced vomiting, diet pills or laxatives. However, others may simply not eat enough food to fuel their bodies’ energy demands. Eating disorders are serious health threats. They can even be fatal. Warning signs include:
  • Excessive leanness or sudden weight loss.
  • Extremely low body weight.
  • Severe food restriction.
  • Relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Distorted body image and self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
  • Lack of menstruation among girls and women.
  • Menstrual disturbances / amenorrhea — Menstrual abnormalities can result when an individual eats a diet that’s not well balanced or eats too little food to meet the energy demands of training. Females over age 16 should see a health care professional if they haven’t started menstruating or have periods that start more than 35 days apart.
  • Bone density loss / osteoporosis — The combination of an inadequate diet and hormonal changes, which often accompany menstrual irregularities in female athletes, predispose them to weaker bones and potential stress fractures. Females typically build up bone mass until about age 25. Girls and young women need proper nutrition to build strong bones. Fruits, vegetables, protein and foods rich in calcium and vitamin D are especially important.After age 25, bone density is slowly lost every year. It’s best to start adulthood with a high level of bone density to avoid weak and brittle bones later in life.

Parents and Coaches

Parents and coaches must help athletes ensure their training is safe. You should also make sure the long-term health and best interests of the athlete are the top priority.

Young Athletes

Learn about proper nutrition and the appropriate medical care that can enhance your performance. The right nutrition and training helps ensure you compete to the best of your abilities over the long term.

If athletes, parents or coaches have concerns about the Female Athlete Triad — poor nutrition or an eating disorder, menstrual disturbances / amenorrhea and bone loss / osteoporosis — consult your health care professional.

Meet the Author

Trista Jeanne Kleppin, MD is a family medicine physician at Lakeshore Medical Clinic in Muskego, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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