The dangers of female athleticism

Insufficient calories, bone loss and disordered periods are the dangerous "triad" affecting female athletes.

Published February 6, 2006 5:05PM (EST)

One week before the start of the Winter Olympic games in Turin, Italy, USA Today takes a look at the physical dangers elite female athletes face. "Sports can be a win-win activity for young women [because it] builds strong bones, helps control weight and improves mood," writes reporter Nanci Hellmich "But it also comes with risks. If female athletes consume too few calories for their level of activity, they might stop menstruating for months, which can lead to bone loss and an increased risk of osteoporosis."

That set of interrelated disorders is so prevalent and so worrisome that it has even earned the moniker "the female-athlete triad" from the American College of Sports Medicine. According to USA Today, the Olympic Committee Medical Commission and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have also responded, by developing a consensus statement on dangers and possible treatments and by publishing a coaches handbook on the issue.

It's an unfortunate irony that the latest high-profile athletes seem to get younger and younger every year, because their youth considerably increases their risk for bone damage. Because of pervasive pressure -- from coaches, parents and, indeed, athletes themselves -- to be thin and appear "fit," many young competitors do not consume sufficient calories to sustain their systems, which disrupts their periods and causes their estrogen levels to fall to the rate of postmenopausal women. Once the damage is done, it is impossible to reverse. Barbara Drinkwater, a Seattle-based research physiologist, tells USA Today, "I have seen girls ... in their 20s who had been amenorrheic (not menstruating) for several years who [have] the bones of a 70- or 80-year-old woman."

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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