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5 Things to Know about the Female Athlete Triad

Exercise is one of the best things you can do to foster a long, healthy life. Regular, even vigorous, exercise has a positive effect on your overall fitness. It helps you maintain a healthy weight; improves your cardiovascular health, brain functioning, and more; and helps prevent the development of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke . . . the list goes on and on.

As beneficial as exercise is, too much exercise, especially when coupled with other unhealthy behaviors, can actually become detrimental and hurt, rather than improve, your health. The Female Athlete Triad is one such scenario in which exercise produces negative health outcomes.

Defining the Female Athlete Triad

The Female Athlete Triad involves is a condition in which excessive exercise, coupled with other unhealthy behaviors, produces negative, rather than positive, health outcomes. The Female Athlete Triad involves a series of three health conditions:

  • Amenorrhea (menstrual cycle disruption or irregularity)

  • Some type of disordered eating (anorexia, for example)

  • The onset of osteoporosis or decreased bone density at earlier than expected ages (normal bone loss typically begins in a woman’s 40s)

Identifying athletes most at risk

The Female Athlete Triad is usually seen in younger female athlete populations (high school and college-age women), but can also be seen in females in their 40s. Those most at risk for this health condition are girls and women who participate in sports that require athletes to be thin or lean and that involve rigorous training regimens. Sports whose participants are most vulnerable include gymnastics, figure skating, cheerleading, ballet, and long-distance runners.

Understanding how the Triad affects health

Usually, the long, arduous training demanded by certain sports and the physical characteristics that participants are encouraged to attain (typically a very slim body shape) lead to a situation in which athletes begin eating very restrictive, unhealthy diets as a way to attain or support the preferred body shape. This combination of behaviors — highly restrictive diets coupled with excessive exercise — produces an environment that affects menstruation and, eventually, bone health.

When a person doesn’t have enough body fat (which is used as fuel for activity) and is being forced to exercise at increasingly strenuous levels, the body is placed under excessive stress to keep vital bodily functions working. These functions include

  • Regulating body temperature (females suffering from Female Athlete Triad frequently complain of being cold)

  • Maintaining bone strength

  • Regulating the production and release of hormones, most notably estrogen

This series of adverse health events leads to irregular menstrual cycles (lessening estrogen production), osteoporosis (stemming from a poor diet and interrupted estrogen levels), and possibly, if left untreated, death.

Recognizing the symptoms

To diagnose the condition, health professionals look for these symptoms:

  • Interrupted menstruation

  • Fatigue

  • Frequent stress fractures

  • Unhealthy obsession with being thin or lean

  • Intense caloric restriction

  • Excessive exercising

  • Various mental health concerns, like severe anxiety or even depression

Preventing the condition

To avoid developing Female Athlete Triad, you can do the following:

  • Ensure you’re getting the appropriate amount of nutrients in your diet.

  • Regulate how intense and lengthy your training program is.

  • Monitor your calorie intake to ensure it doesn’t drop to unhealthy levels.

    Avoid restricting calorie levels to near starvation levels. Your body mass index (BMI) level should not drop below normal (18.5 BMI). At this level, you body will struggle to maintain its functions.

  • Eat a diet full of calcium and vitamin D. Doing so ensures the development of healthy bones.

    To get sufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D from healthy sources, eat dairy products and leafy, green vegetables.

  • Get help. If you struggle with eating healthily or feel that your need to exercise or excessively restrict calories is beyond your control, seek help from a physician.

Being healthy is more important than anything else, including sport success. However, with good information and enough training on how to achieve your goals in a healthy way, you can achieve both optimum health and athletic excellence.

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