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Are Gymnasts at Higher Risk for Eating Disorders?

It’s easy to fall in love with gymnastics. The sparkly uniforms, the bouncy ponytails, and the encouraging hugs from a coach make little girls watching the televised events ready to sign up and be a part of the team, no matter what. But many girls who do enter the world of gymnastics soon find that it is cut-throat and competitive and may resort to dangerous behaviors like eating disorders to keep their weight down and maintain their position on the team.

Girls and young women, in general, have so much pressure on them to maintain a certain body type to be considered beautiful or take in only a small amount of calories in a day to stay fit like their favorite celebrities allegedly do. Unhealthy, disordered eating can cause many serious health issues. If you are seeking anorexia and eating disorder treatment, don’t wait any longer to reach out to Promises Behavioral Health at 844.875.5609

Are Gymnasts at Higher Risk for Eating Disorders?

While few reliable statistics exist on the extent of eating disorders among female elite gymnasts, in 1992, the American College of Sports Medicine first recognized that girls and women in sports are susceptible to three conditions that seem to work together for harm: disordered eating, menstrual irregularity, and osteoporosis. 

A 1995 article in Sports Illustrated brought attention to the way that gymnastics, specifically, is a perfect environment for the three problems. The article chronicled the difficulties of celebrated gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Cathy Rigby, and Kathy Johnson. The elite level of gymnastics shows an especially risky environment for young women. According to one survey, 28 percent of all elite gymnasts and their mothers reported disordered eating behaviors. The NCAA reports that gymnasts show a much higher rate of disordered eating than other athletes, with levels at between 51 and 62 percent. In addition, the average age of menstruation among gymnasts is 15.5 years. At 16 years, a young female who has failed to menstruate is diagnosed with primary amenorrhea. Gymnasts are exceptionally vulnerable to developing these behaviors because the sport is more traditionally focused on weight than others. 

There is a startling trend in the size expectations of young women. In 1976 the average size of the U.S. team was 5’3” and 105 pounds. In 1992, the team had shrunk to an average of 4’9” and 88 pounds. Because they want to remain competitive at the highest levels of the sport, the young girls must maintain a thin and girlish figure. Gymnasts are likely to starve themselves to avoid developing hips or breasts that could negatively impact their performance. Parts of judging are subjective, and appearance is critical. Gymnasts must be trained to maintain healthy eating behaviors. 

Gymnasts just entering the sport should also be encouraged to maintain an interest in other activities so that the pressure of achieving a high level of competition does not become an all-encompassing obsession that dictates negative health choices.

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia

Eating disorders are not only for gymnasts; anorexia is a brain disease with severe metabolical effects on the entire body, and anyone is susceptible, though it tends to affect females disproportionately. Some warning signs and symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Fear of weight gain
  • An obsession with weight gain, counting calories, and food intake
  • A distorted body image
  • Obsession with the body type of a favorite celebrity
  • Denial of hunger and refusal to eat
  • Rituals involving food that may or may not be done in secret
  • Noticeable and worsening weight loss
  • Social isolation or not wanting to eat around others
  • Pale, dull, and dry appearance 
  • Mood swings
  • Chronic dehydration 
  • Complaints of being cold 
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Obsessive exercising 
  • Abusing laxatives or diet pills, likely in secret
  • Fainting
  • New or worsening health conditions 

It is crucial to intervene and get someone struggling with an eating disorder professional help even if they refuse, and they likely will. Often someone will not even realize their obsession with thinness is harmful; due to their distorted body image, their extreme weight loss will look good to them. It is critical to get them into treatment and help them understand that they can manage their eating in a much healthier way—and that their health and life depend on it, as eating disorders can lead to muscle wasting, heart disease, and kidney problems among other severe issues.

Learn How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food Again at Promises Behavioral Health

Many issues can contribute to disordered eating, and our caring and professional staff will work with you to get to the bottom of the cause of your eating disorder so that you can heal and have a healthy relationship with food again. Don’t wait to reach out. Contact us at 844.875.5609 today for more information about your treatment options.

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