Many female athletes may be causing irreparable damage to their
bodies, even as they train to perfect their sport.
These athletes are
pushing their bodies while observing the wrong kind of diet, which can
develop bone-density disorders.
It's hard to imagine a strong young female athlete having anything in
common with a woman in her 70s. But Anne Torres, an elite runner for 12 years learned otherwise from
her doctor. "He told me that I had borderline osteoporosis at age
32," says Torres. "That was a huge shock."
Torres now sees Dr. Aurelia Nattiv, an orthopedic specialist and
director of the University of California Los Angeles Osteoporosis
Center, who treats dozens of young female athletes with bones even more
damaged than Torres'.
"They're 18, 19, 20 [years old]," Nattiv says of the
patients she sees, "and they have a hip fracture, just like your
Doctors are just beginning to understand this syndrome known as the
female athlete triad, often described as "old bones in young
bodies." It starts when a young woman pushes herself to swim that
extra lap or run that extra mile. And then she dramatically limits what
"Most of the time, women athletes are told [in order] to get
better in their sport, they need to lose weight," says Dr. Carol
Otis of the Kerlin-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, who estimates
a third of female athletes in sports such as figure skating, running and
gymnastics suffer from one or more symptoms of the triad.
Lack of Nourishment Can Stop Menstrual Flow
Otis was one of the first doctors to recognize how over-training and
chronic dieting can lead to the second part of the triad: amenorrea, or
the point where a woman stops having a period. "The body is
conserving energy by turning off the reproductive system and the first
sign of that is periods becoming irregular or missing," she
Many mistake amenorrea as a normal part of intensive training.
"It didn't bother me I wasn't having a period, to tell you the
truth," recalls Torres. "I didn't know there was anything
wrong with that."
When a young woman stops menstruating but continues to over-train and
under-eat, her body stops making the female hormones needed to build her
bones, which leads to the third, most devastating dimension of the triad
syndrome: brittle bones that can fracture or collapse.
Dr. Otis inspects an X-ray of a girl suffering from female athlete
triad, pointing to the bone which "has become thin enough that it
actually has collapsed into a wedge."
"Her posture will be permanently in that position, because the
bones have been compressed due to osteoporosis," she adds. Torres
can't reverse a decade of bone loss, but to prevent further damage, she
stopped running and has changed her eating habits.
Still, thousands of women continue to push themselves, striving for
perfection, in both appearance and performance. And doctors worry they
will end up with bodies that may look fit, but are dangerously fragile.