Balance, bones and the female athlete

Women face different challenges than men when it comes to exercise. One of the big concerns for women is energy balance–getting the appropriate amount of nutrients needed to fuel exercise needs. Women, and especially young women, need the right amount of energy available to not only compensate for the energy spent exercising, but also promote good bone health and development.

A negative energy balance, defined as using up more energy than you are taking in, can result in a host of problems for women—specifically bone loss and fractures. So how do you know if you’re taking in enough nutrients or at risk for bone problems?

One of the signs of inadequate nutrition in exercising women is the loss of their menstrual cycle. Estrogen is one of the hormones responsible for menstruation. It also helps prevent or decrease the resorption of bone–the body’s way of breaking down bone and causing bone loss. The body needs appropriate nutrition to promote the normal secretion of estrogen. When more energy is spent than taken in, less estrogen is made.

If this process is not corrected by taking in the right amount of nutrients, the body eventually is not able to provide enough estrogen to support menstruation and the periods will slow down or stop. This lack of estrogen also causes an increase in bone loss, which can lead to stress fractures in bones.

Other signs of inadequate nutrition are related to eating and exercise habits. Women who are trying very hard to maintain a certain appearance or body type may increase their exercise regimen to the point where it can be harmful. Exercising multiple times a day and over-exercising even before or after team practices or workouts can be signs of increased energy expenditure. If these athletes are not taking in enough nutrients, then they will be in a state of negative energy balance.

The converse is true also. Female athletes who overly control their food intake, have abnormal eating patterns or an eating disorder, or use laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills will frequently have a negative energy balance and be in danger of causing damage to their bones and their bodies.

If you are unsure about your energy balance, you should see your doctor and discuss your concerns.