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Do sports that demand intensive training such as figure skating, running, and dance, place an unhealthy emphasis on the weight and physical appearance of athletes?


Nancy Brown



Participation in athletics has many benefits. Young athletes improve their physical and mental health, self-esteem, and self-confidence from their participation in competitive sports (Burney, 1998). In sports like gymnastics, dance, figure skating, and running, where athletes are to be judged in part on their physical appearance, there is a high percentage of disordered eating. Many of these athletes starve themselves to dangerous levels in an attempt to increase their scores and to please their coaches and parents. In general, competitive athletes train six days a week and many of them, particularly young females, burn more calories than they ingest. The stringent demands of these sports, in combination with coaches and judging, are creating an environment that leads many athletes to develop eating disorders in their quest for performance perfection.

Many coaches encourage athletes to be lean and fit in order to promote optimal levels of performance. Many young athletes, however, take a coach's or parent's suggestion and interpret it in the wrong way. A young athlete in many cases assumes that the suggestion to be lean and fit means they are fat and need to loose significant amounts of weight in order to win. The desire to be thin, like competitive sports, becomes a competition. Both concepts incorporate the desire for perfection and both require practice and training. The difference is that the desire to be thin, if practiced too long and hard, can lead to death.


Studies linking competitive sports such as figure skating, running, and dance with the development of eating disorders suggest that the prevalence of eating disorders among these athletes has greatly increased. The physical demands of these sports in combination with the emphasis placed on physical appearance by coaches and judges places incredible pressure on the athletes to be thin. In 1997, a study was conducted on "Body Image and Dieting Behaviors Among Elite Figure Skaters"(Zeigler, 1997). The study examined the relationships between body image, dieting behavior, and nutrition among forty nationally ranked junior figure skaters. The study took place at a skating camp in which the participants' caloric intakes were recorded for four consecutive days and blood samples were drawn (Zeigler, 1997). The population was, according to pediatric growth charts, underweight, yet the majority of participants were satisfied with their body weight and shape (Zeigler, 1997). The study, however, concluded that the majority of the athletes did not have a sufficient caloric intake and continued to diet. In addition, many of these young girls were experiencing a delay of menarche (Zeigler, 1997).


It is difficult to assess the accuracy of such a study due to the fact that participants kept personal food diaries. Personal food diaries are not that reliable because in many cases athletes will over-report their intake of food. In doing so, they protect themselves from being told that they are starving themselves or damaging their bodies. In addition, it is noted in the study that over-reliance on biochemical assessment as a guide of nutritional adequacy can lead to discrepancies in data (Zeigler, 1997). The general concept of the study does however suggest that figure skaters, beginning at a young age, exhibit the tendency to diet and are very concerned with their physical appearance.


In another study the effects of such intensive sports training on growth and puberty, it was found that such training can significantly effect the growth of a young athlete (Pigeon, 1997). This longitudinal study spanning five years was conducted on a group of ninety-seven young female dancers. Over the course of the five years the researchers studied changes in the dancers' heights, weights, and pubertal development in comparison to a control group. The control group consisted of thirty girls who participated in two hours of physical education required by their secondary school each week (Pigeon, 1997). The mean duration of ballet practice among the dancers was 8.80+.8 hours per week (Pigeon, 1997). The amount of practice increased with age.


This study resulted in three types of effects from intensive dance training on the young girls. The onset of puberty was delayed in the dancers. The dancers were slimmer than normal at the beginning of training and lost weight when they began to practice. In addition the smallest dancers, who had the most inadequate nutritional intake, experienced stunted growth (Pigeon, 1997). The researchers concluded that the importance of slimness in the field of dance could promote eating disorder in very young children. It is important however to note that the ages of the dancers ranged from nine to eighteen while the ages of the control group ranged from 10.2 to 15.2. Ages fifteen to eighteen are very volatile years in young girls' lives; it is a period of mental and physical maturation. Therefore, this discrepancy in age could have affected the results of the study.


When studying the correlation between eating disorders, intense training, and importance of physical appearance, it is necessary to examine the motivation and reasoning behind an athlete's efforts. A study titled "Motivations for Running and Eating Attitudes in Obligatory Versus Nonobligatory Runners" investigates this issue (Slay, 1998). The study was conducted in questionnaire format at a four-mile New Year's Resolution Road race. 240 males and 84 females completed the survey that asked questions on running habits, motivations for running, and eating and weight concerns (Slay 1998). The results revealed the fact that obligatory runners were more motivated to run by negative factors. Negative factors were classified as feelings of guilt for stopping, running with injuries, and feelings of anxiety, depression, and guilt when unable to run (Slay, 1998).


It is interesting to note that obligatory runners also scored higher on positive motivations to run such as improved health and fitness and overall well being (Slay, 1998). This finding was not consistent with the researchers original hypothesis. Obligatory runners, particularly females, scored significantly higher on the Eating Attitudes Test. This suggests that motivation to run in an obligatory nature may have some link to disordered eating and may increase one's risk for developing an eating disorder. Again, however, one must be careful when acknowledging the results of this study. Eating disorders are more prevalent among females. With the majority of participants in the study being male, the occurrence of disordered eating may have been lower than if the participants were all female. In addition, one must consider the fact that self-report questionnaires are subject to over and under reporting which could adversely affect the results.


Another study examines the "Nutritional status of female athletes with subclinical eating disorders (Beals, 1998). This study examined the "energy and nutritional status of female athletes with subclinical eating disorders in attempt to determine if these athletes were at a greater risk for nutrient deficiencies than athletes who did not have eating disorders (Beals, 1998). The subjects of the study, females from ages eighteen to thirty-six, were screened for subclinical eating disorders using health and diet questionnaires and several other self report questionnaires. It interesting to note that many of the athletes had inadequate intakes of energy, carbohydrate, protein, calcium, zinc, iron, and magnesium (Beals, 1998). The potential long-term health consequences of such deficiencies include things like anemia, fatigue, and electrolyte and cardiovascular imbalances(Beals,1998).


The aforementioned studies suggest that competitive sports that place a great emphasis on physical appearance have the propensity to encourage eating disorders. Part of these athletes' intensive training should focus on the importance of good nutrition and body satisfaction. Intensive training is very strenuous on a growing body, and it is vital to educate these devoted athletes at an early age about the importance of healthy living.











Beals, K. and Manore, M. 1998. "Nutritional status of female athletes with subclinical eating disorders." Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 98:419-425.


Burney, M. and Brehm, B. 1998. "The Female Athlete Triad." Journal of Physical Education. 69:43-45.


Pigeon, P. and Oliver, I. 1997. "Intensive dance practice." The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 25: 243-247.


Slay, H. and Hayaki, J. 1998. "Motivations for Running and Eating Attitudes in Obligatory Versus Nonobligatory Runners." International Journal of Eating Disorders. 23: 267-275.


Ziegler, P. and San Khoo, C. 1998. "Body Image and Dieting Behaviors Among Elite Figure Skaters." International Journal of Eating Disorders. 24:421-427.


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