Student Well-Being

Warning Issued on Student-Athlete Weight Practices

By Vaishali Honawar — December 13, 2005 3 min read
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The American Academy of Pediatrics says student-athletes sometimes engage in unhealthy weight-control practices, and a new policy from the group asks doctors to guide athletes, their parents, and coaches on healthy ways to gain and lose weight.

Youth activities such as cheerleading, dancing, gymnastics, and wrestling emphasize leanness or thinness, while football and basketball often motivate athletes to gain weight, says the policy published Dec. 5 in the journal Pediatrics.

The policy’s lead author, Dr. Thomas Martin, a Williamsport, Pa., physician who specializes in sports medicine, said coaches have been guilty of promoting unhealthy weight practices among students. The AAP is trying to help young athletes “who want to gain or lose weight [understand] what is the proper way to do it,” he said in an interview.

Some practices athletes use to lose weight include restricting food, vomiting, overexercising, taking diet pills, smoking, and wearing rubber suits in saunas. Those trying to gain weight often use nutritional supplements and anabolic compounds that could be potentially harmful, the policy says.

Read the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on student-athlete weight-control practices, posted by AAP Policy.

Compared with adults, children are more likely to develop heat stress and dehydration, and their overall health can be greatly affected by unhealthy weight-control habits, the AAP says.

John Almquist, the chairman of the secondary schools committee of the National Athletic Trainers Association in Dallas and an athletic trainer in the Fairfax County, Va., school district, said that some coaches tend to follow older theories based on their own experiences and disregard modern science.

Parents, he said, also can be guilty of encouraging unhealthy weight-control practices. “Maybe the father was a wrestler and sat in a sauna with a rubber suit on, so he says why can’t his child?” Mr. Almquist said.

Advice on Body Fat

The policy from the AAP, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., was inspired in part by the deaths of three college wrestlers within a span of 35 days in 1997. The deaths were blamed on rapid weight cutting.

Wrestlers often use such methods to fit into a lighter weight class, said Jerry Diehl, the assistant director of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, which publishes rules in 16 sports. In April, the federation approved guidelines on weight-control practices for wrestlers that it will ask member state associations to implement in the 2006-07 school year.

“The philosophy of wrestling has always been that thin is better,” Mr. Diehl said. “But we know from a physiological standpoint that more weight is better” for the sport.

The AAP policy, which stresses that losing more than one or two pounds weekly is dangerous, advises doctors to be vigilant on symptoms of eating disorders among athletes, and regular in conducting physical exams of athletes to monitor weight changes.

It also sets guidelines for minimum body fat for male high school athletes, which, it says, should not drop below 7 percent. While the policy does not make a minimum-body-fat recommendation for female athletes, it says they should consume enough calories and nutrients to meet their energy requirements and avoid menstrual problems.

In the 166,000-student Fairfax County school district, Mr. Almquist said, all athletes are tested for body fat, and anyone who needs to lose weight is put on a closely monitored weight-loss schedule that is slow but healthy. Students are also educated on the science behind weight loss and gain to help them understand unhealthy habits, he said.

“Now we have more coaches telling us that the program has been actually good for the students, and that they are healthier throughout the year using these guidelines,” Mr. Almquist said, “instead of being skin and bones from November through March.”

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