Sports and athletic activities such as dance provide many routes for adolescents to develop physically and increase their skills in teamwork, leadership, and self-confidence. Sports can be a distraction, but they are just as likely to provide discipline that can help in schoolwork and later in life. On the other hand, body image and weight control are central to many sports, and this can lead to the development of an eating disorder or related exercise addictions. Eating disorder treatment centers have generally responded to this unfortunate tendency by including programs for athletes.
Athletes and Eating Disorders
Although eating disorders statistically affect girls more often than boys, both groups are at risk of developing an eating disorder in their teenage years, especially those who participate in athletics and body-focused activities. Many studies have shown that when adolescents participate in any activity that stresses weight or appearance, they may have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Although every sport can trigger an eating or exercise disorder, some prime examples of these kinds of sports include:
- Horseback Riding
- Ballet and Dance
- Figure skating
- Swimming and Diving
Warning Signs of Incipient Eating Disorders
The signs of an eating disorder aren’t always obvious, and their causes are many. Many weight-loss techniques are incorporated into sports that have weight requirements, which might disguise common eating symptoms. Some common eating disorder warning signs that loved ones should be aware of include:
Compulsive Exercise and Dieting
Every qualified coach understands the importance of adequate nutrition when it comes to building muscle and stamina for competition. However, some sports have strict weight restrictions, which can influence an athlete’s eating habits. As a parent, if you see that your child is counting calories obsessively, purging before a weigh-in, or excessively training (i.e., running for hours every day regardless of injury or inclement weather), he or she is at risk of developing an eating disorder.
Expressing Negative Feelings about Their body
When adolescent athletes begin to express dissatisfaction with their bodies, it’s an indication that body dysmorphia might be developing. Body dysmorphia, or a negative body image with distorted perceptions of size and weight, is one of the most common contributing factors in most eating disorders. When coupled with other stressors such as an anxiety disorder or a sense of perfectionism, the risk factor for disordered eating or exercise patterns is greatly increased.
Fluctuating Body Weight
As teens grow and go through puberty, it is common for their weight to change, as their bodies are changing rapidly. Sudden changes in weight, however, indicate that a regular eating pattern has been disrupted. Of course, a sudden, severe drop in weight is a cause for concern. However, although anorexia nervosa certainly might cause weight loss, other eating disorders such as binge eating disorder can actually cause sudden weight gain. Fluctuations in weight are a sign that the athlete is restricting, purging, or experiencing another form of disordered eating behaviors.
Options for Treatment
Parents should understand that their most important role is to support their children’s health and emotional development. Recovering from an eating or exercise disorder requires communication and teamwork, from the child to the parents and then to the eating disorder treatment program. Some more options to help adolescent athletes get help with eating disorders include:
- Check-in with coaches regarding their child’s emotional state and any warning signs. Parents should take the time to question the coaches on topics surrounding weight goals and nutritional planning. Unfortunately, some sports put stress on specific body weights, but if possible, encourage athletes to focus on health rather than a specific number.
- Check their social media accounts to see if they’re discussing weight loss or negative body image issues.
- Discourage the practice of frequent “weigh-ins” at home.
- Educate yourself on the common signs of eating disorders.
- If there are still concerns after discussing these warning signs, parents should immediately seek professional advice from a specialized therapist or eating disorder treatment center.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: CARRIE HUNNICUTT
With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach, and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.
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