Women Athletes and Anorexia
In an article by Epling and Pierce (1996) they have described what they call “activity anorexia” (pg. 3). Activity anorexia is similar to what is known about the types of anorexia as described in the DSM IV, but it is more specifically triggered not only through diet but also excessive exercise. It is further delineated by a decrease in food intake followed by an increase in physical activity and an increase in activity leads to a continued decrease of food. “Women with anorexia who are in constant motion seem elated, do not feel fatigue, and diet without experiencing hunger” (Epling & Pierce, 1996). This is very similar to a phenomenon called runners high. Endogenous opiates in the brain leave runners feeling effortless and without fatigue.
“Anorexia is more frequently found in athletes or professions that require thinness, such as modeling or ballet” (WebMD, 2003). Powers and Johnson (2003) further add to the list of at risk athletes by adding, gymnastics, figure skating, swimming and distance running. These are the “athletes (who) tend to be highly competitive, high achieving, and self disciplined individuals; who go to great lengths to excel in their sports. This personality type combined with the expectations of team mates and coaches as well as the spectators may make them at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than the average person” (What You Need To Know About, n.d.). However, it is very difficult to identify athletes with eating disorders. They are often secretive or concerned about what the perception might be from their coaches, parents and friends.
“A 1999 NCAA study found more than half the Division I college female athletes surveyed were diagnosed with some kind of eating disorder” (CNNfyi.com, 2000). After a knee injury in 1997 one of the University of Connecticut’s star basketball players, Shea Ralph struggled with anorexia because she was afraid to gain weight (CNNfyi.com, 2000). At six feet her weight got down to 108 pounds. Julie Palmer, who trained Ohio State University students in aerobics and performed as an OSU cheerleader, was diagnosed with anorexia at around 90 pounds (The Columbus Dispatch, 2000). And in 1995 cross country-runner, Whitney Spannuth from Vanderbilt, almost didn’t make it to the Olympics (The News and Observer Publishing Co., 1995).
Although the numbers may not be as significant as cancer, heart disease, or AIDS, the media’s portrayal of anorexia nervosa seemingly indicates that it’s a serious matter. The numbers of women in the general population with anorexia nervosa is approximately 1% (WebMD, 2003) and the NCAA numbers indicate that nearly half the Division I college female athletes (CNNfyi.com, 2000) are diagnosed with some kind of eating disorder. These are alarming numbers. And although not directly mentioned, women triathletes tend to be highly competitive, high achieving, and self disciplined individuals and we go to great lengths to excel in the sport. This personality type combined with the expectations of family, friends, team mates, coaches and spectators bring us into the high risk category for developing an eating disorder.
Written by Dr. Michelle Cleere. Dr. Michelle Cleere is owner of Sports Minded, a sport, exercise & clinical psychology consulting practice. She works with individuals in person, by phone or e-mail and also conducts group workshops. She is an NASM-certified personal trainer and a USAT-certified triathlon coach. E-mail her at [email protected] or visit her web site at http://sportsminded.webs.com/