Social media is swarming with stunning fit women with flawless figures, often documenting their life or journey to better health through various diet, fitness and weight loss methods. The number of women that are setting goals and participating in fitness competitions is rapidly increasing each season. Having a goal to compete is fantastic; you have a timeframe, its specific, achievable and realistic (in most cases – if the timeframe is appropriate), and should have a positive impact on your health. There is nothing more rewarding than stepping on stage knowing that you have reached your goal and that your hard work after months of prepping, early starts, late finishes, aching muscles, food prep, consistency and mental battles has paid off. But what happens to our bodies when we have been exercising excessively and restricting our intake of food and nutrients for long periods of time?
Behind the success and selfies, there are the less discussed health concerns that can affect females. Consisting of patterns of disordered eating, menstrual disturbances and low bone mass, referred to as the female athlete triad. These implications are particularly common in women taking part in events or sports that emphasize leanness (such as competing), but also common in those that have very low energy availability and exercise for extended periods of time. Low energy availability is a factor that impairs the reproductive health in women. Insufficient energy can lead to dysfunction in the menstrual cycle, decreasing circulating levels of oestrogen and other hormones within the body. Low energy availability and excessive energy output, can lead to metabolic damage, and in the longer term affect bone health through reducing bone mass.
Reproductive hormones may be the last things on a competitors mind whilst on the journey to the stage or a slimmer figure, but there are serious implications on female reproductive hormones from excessive exercise and restricted intake. Menstrual disturbances or lack of cycle and low bone mass can also be common in individuals undertaking extreme eating behaviors accompanied by grueling training and exercise sessions.
Disordered eating behaviors are commonly associated with the underlying energy restriction through food restriction, selective avoidance of food groups, binge eating, or dysfunctional eating patterns such as skipping meals. Whilst reading this a few things may spring to mind; this sounds like you, or what about that girl from the gym who was telling you about her own comp prep experience, or your friend from work that displays these eating behaviors? Behaviors such as intense fear of weight gain, weight loss through food restriction, excessive exercise or both and behaviors such as laxatives and vomiting can all contribute to irregularity of period. So whilst you may still be having regular menstrual cycles, it is important to understand the longer term implications associated with over exercise and under eating, and recognize the symptoms if they appear.
It is important to note that the health concerns discussed can occur with or without eating disorders as the scale from optimal intake to low energy availability ranges greatly. It is important to recognize and treat the signs to reduce the associated risks.
Are you at risk?
- Do you restrict your food intake and diet?
- Do you exercise for prolonged periods of time, or a number of times per day?
- Do you limit the types of food you eat – don’t do carbs, no fruit, ‘food rules’?
- Are you vegetarian or vegan?
Also ensure that if you set the goal to compete, that you are doing it for the right reasons. This will help with taking a balanced approached, avoiding extremes and will be more likely to reach your goal.
Reasons to compete:
Reasons not to compete:
- You love training and physical fitness
- You need a challenge or a new goal to work towards
- You can handle criticism (Competing is a very subjective sport)
- You have a good support group that will cheer you on every step of the way
- You have a healthy relationship with food, no past history of disordered eating
- You hate the gym / training / exercise
- You have an injury or pre-existing medical condition
- You have a history of disordered eating of body image issues
- You are doing it to impress or beat someone, win back a boyfriend, boost your social media -profile, or want a sponsorship deal.
Whilst it is completely normal to log your food diary on my fitness pal, count calories, weigh foods and portion sizes, and this is the key to success in many sports, including competing, there can sometimes be a fine line between success for sport and disordered eating. Ensure you look past short-term success of extremes and a trophy, to ensure long term reproductive, skeletal and bone health. The first line of treatment for restoring menstrual dysfunction is through decreasing energy expenditure and increasing food intake. Simply put, rest and a balanced, plentiful diet will help overcome these symptoms if identified.
Prep smarter not harder for long-term health, rather than short-term success!