Eating disorders and participation in athletics

With the passage of Title IX, more and more women have been participating in athletics. Although participation in sports has many benefits--including teamwork, fitness, and fun--it also brings a risk of eating disorders, especially at an elite level. A recent study from the International Journal of Eating Disorders, led by Jill Holm-Denoma (now of the University of Denver), looked at eating disordered attitudes and behaviors in relation to level of athletic participation and sports anxiety.

Women who participate in intercollegiate varsity athletics have much higher rates of eating disorder symptomatology when compared to women in club sports, independent exercisers and non-exercisers. Furthermore, higher levels of sports anxiety (that is, anxiety about physical activity and/or sports) were predictive of increased levels of bulimic symptoms and a drive for thinness.

Varsity athletes have devoted much of their recent lives to their sport, increasing both their identity with athletics and the pressure to perform well. As well, it could be that eating disordered attitudes and behaviors are normalized, tolerated, or even encouraged. Traits of obsessionality and perfectionism are risk factors for eating disorders, that may also cause a woman to excel at the varsity level.

Yet the results show an interesting variation. Writes Holm-Denoma:

Despite the trend for women who participated in higher levels of athletic competition to have higher levels of eating disorders, our data do not suggest a clear dimension ranging from nonexercisers to varsity athletes. In some cases, for instance, independent exercisers appear to have similar traits to varsity athletes (e.g., see Fig. 1). Thus, some independent exercisers may engage in exercise as frequently and/or intensely as women who participate in competitive athletics.

It appears that some women with eating disorders (or their accompanying attitudes) exercise alone, independently, and perhaps obsessively. This could perhaps come from a desire to hide their disorder.

The researchers conclude that:

Coaches and clinicians should be aware that athletes experience higher rates of eating disorder symptoms than nonathletes. Moreover, sports anxiety should be considered as a possible target of therapy among athletes.

(cross-posted at FEASTing on Research)

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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