Since the fitness boom of the 1970s, women have been bombarded with social messages that ‘exercise is good for you’ and ‘the more the better’, prompting many women to engage in regular, and sometimes vigorous, exercise regimes, often alongside restricted diets. Few women in this category define themselves as athletes, or consider their exercise practices particularly excessive. However, such women may be exposed to some of the same risks as female athletes. Strong evidence indicates that chronic (long-term) low energy availability, that may develop from a reduction in energy intake and/or an increase in exercise energy expenditure, is a primary concern for exercising women.
It is widely accepted in the lay and clinical communities that women with a low body weight, restricted caloric intake and high energy expenditures are more susceptible to energy-related amenorrhea. However, considerable differences among women with similar dietary intakes, training load and body composition are observed. Thus, other factors such as genetics, personality types, and life-stress may contribute to the development of energy-related menstrual disturbances.
It is somewhat surprising given the high prevalence of low energy availability, disordered eating and exercise addictions, that we so rarely hear about the potentially harmful effects of moderate to excessive exercise combined with restricted diets on women. With such public concern about the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’, the thin, toned, athletic female body continues to be celebrated as the ultimate signal of ‘good health’. Girls and women who are seen to have good control over their weight through diet and exercise often receive positive feedback and attention from friends, family, workmates and strangers, which supports their practices, which may in-fact be doing damage to their long-term health. There are very few social spaces where women can see, hear or talk about the increasingly common issues of exercise addiction, and disordered eating, such that some girls and women feel very alone in their concerns.
With so much emphasis placed on the fit, toned, athletic female body in the media (i.e. television, magazines, newspapers) it is not surprising that many girls and women have developed complex relationships with food and exercise. Exercise addictions and disordered eating behaviours are very prevalent in many Western societies, including New Zealand. The concern is that such practices are becoming normalised in particular social groups (e.g. peer groups of high school or university friends, work-mates, exercise buddies), which makes it difficult for women to question such practices when many in their social groups are also engaging in similar practices (e.g. dieting, exercising rigorously, counting calories, expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies).
The mass media continues to ignore this growing health concern among exercising women, and many General Practitioners are not up-to-date on the latest research and do not refer or manage afflicted women appropriately. This dangerous cocktail of ongoing stigma and misinformation has lead to some confusion and questioning among exercising women: What happened to my period? Should I be concerned? Will it impact my chances of having children in the future? What will be the state of my bones in 20 years time? These are important questions for exercising women, as well as their family and friends, members of the exercise industry and health professionals. We hope the information provided on this website helps you answer some of your own private questions, and perhaps seek further advice from a health professional.