Health Issues of Female Athletes

In a recent entry, I took a light-hearted jab at my college's rival football team. One reader's response surprised me; it implied that sports should be left strictly on the field because they have no place on the health pages.

Well, I couldn't disagree more

Increasingly, women are becoming intensely competitive athletes. And women in sports certainly have issues that specifically belong on the health pages. Living in an area of the U.S. that's a haven for women's lacrosse, and being the mother of a 13-year-old daughter who plays soccer competitively, I am keenly aware of the health issues of women athletes. Let's discuss them.

Girls, Sports, and Puberty

Just about the time when young athletes start feeling more pressure to increase their time and effort in athletics, puberty often begins. For girls, the onset of puberty brings increases in the body's estrogen levels. Although estrogen has the beneficial effect of strengthening bones and causing normal menstrual cycles, this female hormone also tends to deposit a higher percentage of fat on teenage girls than on their male contemporaries. Estrogen also results in girls having looser joints, tendons, and ligaments.

What happens to the females?

Increased estrogen levels at puberty cause female athletes to deposit more fat on their bodies than do boys--and this means that girl athletes have to work harder than boys do to build their muscles and strength. And the aforementioned laxity of their joints, tendons, and ligaments? That results in girls sustaining a higher than average rate of injuries to those parts (particularly to the anterior cruciate ligament).

And yet, in contrast, if a female athlete works out so much that she loses too much body fat, her ovaries and menstrual cycle will start operating abnormally and her overall estrogen levels will decrease. And since any woman at any age will lose bone density from a lack of estrogen, you can imagine what weak bones mean for a competitive athlete!

What's all this mean for female athletes?

It means that female athletes of all ages must carefully monitor the following:

  • Calorie intake. Female athletes must make certain that they are eating enough calories to support the amount of exercise they are getting. Their caloric intake should never fall below 1,800 calories a day, and oftentimes they need much more: A woman who exercises more than an hour a day should consume 45 calories for every 2.2 pounds that they weigh. If an athlete is not menstruating or is having irregular menses, it's a prime sign that she needs more calories. If necessary, a woman's healthcare provider or nutritionist can help calculate how many calories she should be taking in.
  • Estrogen levels. It may be necessary to take an estrogen supplement if estrogen levels become too low.
  • Calcium levels. Female athletes should take a calcium supplement of at least 1,200 milligrams (mg) to 1,500 mg per day.
  • Eating patterns. Female athletes must watch out for signs of abnormal eating habits because they have been shown to be more susceptible than males to becoming anorexic or bulimic. The athlete's healthcare provider or a nutritionist can help if her eating patterns are dysfunctional.
  • Exercises. Finally, today's female athletes need to learn exercises that have been specially designed to align with the proper biomechanics of their bodies. These exercises teach girls and women to use their bodies properly, so they can protect themselves from injury. Such exercise programs are in place at all of the service academies, and all female athletes should push their coaches to institute this type of training.

Being a Healthy Female Athlete

As a female, whether you are a competitive soccer player, a college lacrosse player, a marathon runner, or are simply serious about exercising, you need to be aware of how exercise affects your health. You need to eat enough to replace the calories you expend. You need to have enough body fat to be able to continue menstruating. You need a daily calcium supplement--and perhaps extra estrogen. And you need to practice safe sports techniques and exercises that will protect your vulnerable joints.

If you are having trouble with any of these issues, see your healthcare provider for an evaluation. Together, you can devise a plan of action that will help you remain a healthy athlete!

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