For the social, physical and mental benefits, youth participation in sports has been touted for years.
But University research published in the March edition of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows
a correlation between unhealthy weight-control behaviors and teens in weight-related sports.
Report co-author Dr. Marla Eisenberg, of the medical school’s pediatrics department, said the University’s research showed teens who participate in sports like wrestling, ballet and gymnastics are more apt to take extreme measures like using laxatives, steroids or vomiting to control their weight than their peers.
“The girls who were involved in a weight-related sport were about one and one-half to two times as likely to be doing these unhealthy weight-control behaviors,” she said. “We found that boys who were involved in weight-related sports were four to six times as likely to be using unhealthy weight control.”
Researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 middle and high school students in the Twin Cities metro. They asked respondents whether they felt their sport put a strong emphasis on weight and if they had engaged in weight-control behaviors in the past year.
Becky Henry, president of the Hope Network, a Minnetonka-based organization that helps families deal with eating disorders, said it is crucial that parents know what messages about weight the coaches might be sending to the athletes.
“Parents aren’t speaking to coaches about this because they don’t know about this,” she said.
Henry said young people undergoing physical changes, combined with careless coaches, can trigger eating disorders and weight-control problems.
“I think a lot of coaches just aren’t aware of the impact their words have,” she said. “Teens are more susceptible to those comments.”
Lifelong dancer and communication studies senior Gina Becchetti said the weight -control behaviors of many athletes are personal decisions.
“I think that a lot of girls nowadays take it upon themselves to start dieting and lose weight,” she said. “They have it in their head that it’s something they need to do for themselves.”
Becchetti, a University dance team captain, said a teacher or coach never told her she needed to lose weight. She said dance team coach Amber Struzyk encourages her team to make sound diet and exercise decisions.
“Our coach wants us to look healthful and muscular,” Becchetti said. “She told someone she needed to gain weight once.”
She said the style of dance performed by the team differs greatly from classical ballet, and she can see how those dancers might be pressured. Still, Becchetti said she thinks the role of genetics outweighs outside influences.
“I feel like there’s just going to be that handful of people that are going to have anorexia,” she said. “It’s a disease.”