Overly fit and underfed

Extreme athleticism can mask a deadly syndrome among female athletes.

Published September 15, 2006 2:00PM (EDT)

Thursday's New York Times reported on a distressing syndrome afflicting varsity and award-winning female athletes. For some jocks, excessive training can effectively hide a critical eating disorder, and sufferers may seem like shining examples of health and athleticism until their bodies rapidly deteriorate. Disordered eating can lead to osteoporosis, severe stress fractures (as in the case of one college athlete who broke the base of her spinal column during a run) and death.

These symptoms and behaviors are all part of a common syndrome known as the female athlete triad -- a combination of disordered eating, a missing period and osteoporosis. Though the Times reports that no large-scale studies have been conducted on the extent of the triad among female athletes, a recent survey of 80 female varsity athletes revealed that 75 percent had at least one sign of the condition.

Several studies suggest that the condition is widely undiagnosed and misunderstood among track coaches. A deep-seated problem is the common misconception that irregular or missing periods are a normal or inevitable consequence of rigorous exercise. But Dr. Anne Hoch, director of a Milwaukee women's sports medicine clinic, told the Times, "What we know from research is that women can exercise as much as they want, they can run 100 miles a week and if they fuel themselves properly, they will have normal periods."

Sadly, the Times also suggests that "the problem may be a reluctance by many coaches -- even women -- to ask about menstrual cycles." Certainly examples should be made of awesome, compassionate coaches like Gary Wilson, a cross-country coach at University of Minnesota, who has a doctor first broach the topic with his female players before he follows up himself. If signs of the triad emerge, Wilson says he refuses to let the athlete run: "We say, 'We're not going to run you if you're not a healthy person,'" he told the Times. "That doesn't mean we won't help you. I'll get you help and sit on the bench alongside you, but we're not going to run you if you're anorexic or bulimic.'"

As important as this story is, it's a little curious to see it housed in the Time's Fashion & Style section (though, to be fair, it is also listed under the Health section). As a Broadsheet reader wrote in an e-mail, "The article is informative, but the death of anorexic runners doesn't seem to be a fashion issue, to me." Well said!

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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