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Gymnastics and Health Article: Eating Disorders

By Karen Goeller, CSCS

Copyright © Gymnastics Stuff™ This article is not for reprint without written permission from the author.

 

This is a response to  student who believed that a large majority of gymnasts suffer from eating disorders. She asked about my personal experience as a coach.

 

My personal experience with eating disorders...  I studied health and nutrition in college so I already knew the signs and symptoms. In 30 years of coaching I have only PERSONALLY seen one gymnast with an eating disorder. This one girl's eating disorder was NOT influenced by any coach. It was influenced by her best friend in school with the desire to diet. This girl was following her friend right into the trap of anorexia.

 

I  detected this problem with this gymnast because she was performing all of the conditioning and was the only one on the team who was not getting stronger. She was actually getting weaker, really fast. She quickly began to lack the energy necessary for the workouts too. I contacted her mother and initially asked if her daughter was dieting because she was becoming weaker. The mother became angry and quickly hung up the phone. The problem became more apparent to me so I contacted the mother again a week later and told the mother that her daughter did not have the energy for the workouts. Again, I mentioned that she may be dieting unnecessarily. Her mother became embarrassed, denied a problem existed, and suddenly pulled her daughter out of the sport. I found out a few months later that I was 100% accurate with detecting the problem early and that I did help her mother discover the problem. Again, this one girl's eating disorder was a result of supporting and copying her best friend at school who was going into the downward spiral of anorexia.

 

My staff and I encouraged our gymnasts to eat plenty of healthy foods. I had a nutritionist discuss healthy eating with my gymnasts on a regular basis. There are still some terrible coaches out there that do not care about their gymnast's health, but the majority of gymnastics coaches are aware of healthy eating. Any coach who asks a gymnast to step on a scale to be weighed should not be coaching. Of course, there are some gymnasts who are overweight, but the coaches should discuss healthy eating habits with the entire team rather than "dieting" with any gymnast alone. Many coaches now discuss healthy eating with a positive attitude on a regular basis and that helps the athletes learn healthy habits for life. Gymnastics coaches have been made aware of eating disorders through many channels in recent years. USA Gymnastics has educated coaches through Technique Magazine and coaching conventions.

 

Eating disorders are not too difficult to detect for a coach who is well educated, informed on the issue, and knows their athletes. Again, I have personally coached thousands of gymnasts since 1978 in a variety of settings including my gym, other gyms, and camps. I have only personally seen one gymnast with this problem as a coach and I am very, very good at detecting problems with gymnasts. The kids at the gymnastics camps ate a large amount of food. An eating disorder would be detectable very fast in a camp setting.

 

There are gymnasts who sometimes do not eat enough calories, but they do not necessarily have eating disorders. Some simply do not realize that they need more calories than people who do not exercise. When a gymnast is going downhill rather than progressing there is a problem. When an athlete is often fatigued much easier than she previously was there is a problem. Weight loss, low blood pressure, dizziness, poor skin coloring, and a change in personality are all reasons to be concerned that there could be a health problem. A doctor should evaluate any gymnast who has these signs or symptoms. Osteoporosis, Osteopenia, stress fractures, organ failure, and other very serious health issues do occur with eating disorders that have not been diagnosed and controlled early enough, including death in the most severe cases.

 

To all parents reading this: Please discuss healthy eating with your children. If you feel that your child has a health problem, including an eating disorder, bring them to a doctor immediately. For more information on eating disorders do a Google or webMD search for the phrase, "athlete triad."  Please be sure your gymnast eats plenty of healthy foods. And visit www.FireYourDiet.com,  www.MyPyramid.gov, and www.EatHealthy.org for safe and accurate nutrition information. Nutrition plays a large role in health, athletic performance, growth, healing from injuries and recovering from illnesses. There are a few good health and nutrition articles on this website. Take a look at the calcium and the Osteopenia articles. Be sure to read our nutrition articles.

 

Karen Goeller, CSCS

Karen Goeller has been training athletes since 1978. She has an education that includes training in emergency medicine, physical therapy, and nutrition. She has held certifications that include Fitness Trainer, EMT-D, Nutritional Analysis, and many Gymnastics Certifications among others. Goeller has tremendous experience with training in a variety of settings. Karen Goeller is the author of the Swing Set Fitness books, the Gymnastics Drills and Conditioning books, and many additional products. She has written more gymnastics books than anyone in the USA. Her books are used by fitness experts, sports coaches, teachers, and athletes worldwide. Karen Goeller has worked for world's most famous gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, owned a gymnastics club for ten years, and has been featured in several newspapers and on television many times. Karen Goeller offers sports performance training in NJ and through the web.

 

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