Eating disorders and disordered eating may occur in people who are regarded by society as being extremely fit and healthy. Both males and females engaged in competitive physical activities including sports, fitness and dance have increased rates of body dissatisfaction, disordered eating and eating disorders. Physical activity and sporting environments play an important role in influencing how people perceive their own bodies.
High levels of exercise have been identified as a potential risk factor for eating disorders. A study of adolescent athletes (mean age 14.0 ± 2.2 years) found that changes in the desire to be leaner to improve sports performance were associated with changes in disordered eating. “Dieting” or “dietary restriction” is recognised as a precursor for eating disorders. Athletes are more at risk for disordered eating if they believe it is possible to enhance their sports performance through weight regulation. For example, athletes who believe their performance is directly affected by their body type often experience body dissatisfaction which can lead to disordered eating or eating disorders (e.g. bodybuilders, wrestlers, boxers, jockeys, rowers). Aesthetic sports which focus on appearance (e.g. figure skating, dancing, diving, gymnastics) and endurance sports which focus on individual performance, rather than the entire team (e.g. track and field, cycling, swimming) are also associated with an increased risk of eating disorders. While disordered eating more frequently affects athletes in sports that emphasize a thin size or a low weight, than in other sports, no sports are exempt. Although some instances of disordered eating may directly relate to the sport, more often the individual athlete has other risk factors in their lives and may have been likely to engage in disordered eating without participation in a sport.
While there appear to be circumstances under which sports participation is a risk factor for eating problems, there are also situations where participating in sport may be a protection against body dissatisfaction and eating problems. For example, young people engaging in non-elite sports, especially in high school, have shown a reduced risk of eating problems compared to their peers and body image has been found to differ significantly among girls participating in different types of sport, and between those who participate in sport and those who do not. Encouraging females to participate in physical activity which focuses on what the body can do (function) rather than on appearance has been found to enhance body satisfaction.
Professionals working in sport and fitness play a large and ongoing role in the influence of people engaging in competitive physical activity and are therefore instrumental in delivering positive messaging about body image and healthy eating and exercise behaviours within a high risk community. Coaches and other sports professionals including physiotherapists, sports dieticians and are amongst the most important and influential role models in the lives of the athletes they interact with, and as such, these people are in a strong position to assist in the prevention, early identification, intervention and management of eating disorders.
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