Experts Issue Guidelines on Safe Weight Loss for
MONDAY, June 20 (HealthDay News) -- Gymnasts, wrestlers and
boxers often feel pressure to lose weight to boost performance, but
the drastic methods they sometimes use -- including strictly
limiting calories and intentional dehydration -- can be dangerous
to their health, experts warn.
To offer guidance to athletes, coaches and parents, the National
Athletic Trainers' Association has issued a new set of guidelines
for safe weight loss by athletes.
They include: using body composition assessments to measure lean
body mass versus fat; gradually shedding no more than 1.5 percent
of body weight a week; eating a balanced diet that includes all
food groups; and losing weight under the supervision of nutrition,
health and weight management experts.
"In the performance sports -- gymnastics, dance, ballet -- they have this huge responsibility to not only do a performance but to look good while they are doing it. It's a unwritten rule that they have to be a certain weight, and they get a lot of pressure, not just from dance masters but from the public's expectations and themselves," said Paula Sammarone Turocy, lead author of the guidelines and chair of the department of athletic training at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "We also see it in traditional sports -- jockeys, wrestlers, boxers. They all have weight requirements. If they don't make the weight, they don't compete."
And the pressure to shed weight cuts across all sports, she
added. Many cyclists, swimmers, runners, soccer players and even
football players believe that losing weight will mean they can run,
swim and jump faster.
Getting down to an ideal body weight to improve performance
isn't a problem in and of itself, she said. It's when athletes go
to extremes that their drive can backfire. "When it's done
improperly or done to extremes it does interfere with performance,"
The new guidelines were to be presented Monday at the annual
meeting of the National Athletic Trainers' Association in New
Orleans and are published in the June issue of the
Journal of Athletic Training.
Ashleigh Clare-Kearney has been there. As a high school student,
she was a standout gymnast, in more ways than one. She was powerful
and graceful, although she was 5-foot-4 and weighed 155 pounds.
"I didn't fit the stereotypical frame, which is 4 feet, 10 inches, 110 pounds," Clare-Kearney said. "I was told, 'You need to lose weight. You will be viewed as a risk. You are not going to be able to compete in elite international competitions.' People said I wouldn't make it because of my size."
She defied their predictions. As a gymnast at Louisiana State
University (LSU), she became the NCAA national champion in vault
and floor, captain of the team and a NCAA Woman of the Year
Yet she couldn't deny it -- slimming down would help her
performance. She'd put on weight when she got to college, and she
knew that carrying less heft might allow her to vault even
Working with the athletic trainers and the coaches at LSU, she
got down to about 145 pounds by focusing on nutrition. "I was never
going to be 110 pounds. That's not the way I'm built," she said.
"What really resonated with me was the way the athletic training
staff understood that. They said, 'Let's be realistic.'"
For Clare-Kearney, that included keeping a food diary, making
sure to always eat breakfast, drinking water instead of sweetened
beverages and eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed
But not every athlete manages to handle the pressure to lose
weight so well.
Before competitions, some wrestlers, jockeys and boxers
intentionally dehydrate themselves by exercising in heavy clothing
and restricting certain foods and fluids to lose weight
There are even anecdotal reports that elite, international
athletes have their blood removed by IV prior to weigh-in. The
blood is then re-infused before competition.
Among wrestlers at least, intentional dehydration may be less
popular than it used to be due to changes in the rules from the
high school level on up that call for urine tests to detect
hydration status at weigh-in. In 2006, for example, the National
Federation of State High School Associations not only adopted the
hydration status rules, but also minimum body fat requirements
(greater than 7 percent in boys and 12 percent in girls) in order
Not only can rapid weight loss hurt performance over the short
term because athletes simply don't have the energy to perform at
their best, but experts add that restricting calories can also have
Over time, dietary restrictions can impact the endocrine system,
hindering the growth and functioning of muscles and bones. A poor
diet can also impair thyroid function, lower metabolism and hormone
production and suppress the immune system.
Clare-Kearney, now a law student at Southern University Law
Center of Baton Rouge and a volunteer coach for her alma mater,
urges young athletes to consider the consequences of their
"Food really does fuel your body. Your body can only handle so much without the proper fuel and nutrition," she said. "And there is life beyond gymnastics. We also have to keep our body healthy for life after gymnastics."
U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more
on eating disorders.
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