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From the National Athletic Trainers' Association

Safe Weight Loss and Maintenance Practices in Sports and Exercise

Recommendations for Athletes, Coaches, and Parents

As part of an ongoing effort to highlight safe weight loss and weight management practices among active people and athletes at all levels, the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) has released a new position statement on "Safe Weight Loss and Maintenance Practices in Sport and Exercise."1

Published in the June 2011 issue of the Journal of Athletic Training,  the statement presents athletic trainers and other health care professionals with recommendations for safe weight loss and weight maintenance practices for athletes and the physically active, and guidelines for coaches and parents that will allow athletes and active individuals to safely achieve and maintain weight and body composition goals.

Increasing role of weight management for athletes

"Diet and exercise have always affected sports and physical activity," says the statement, "but with the intensity of competition increasing at all levels has come a renewed interest in controlling the factors that influence performance and health.  Diet, exercise, body composition, and weight management now play larger roles in an active person's life and performance."

According to NATA's statement, unsafe weight management practices can compromise athletic performance and negatively affect an individual's health. Athletes and physically active individuals often attempt to lose weight by not eating, engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors and restricting fluids. Girl with tape measure around wrists

Seven guidelines for safe weight loss

Kathleen M. Laquale, PhD, ATC, LAT, LDN, professor, Department of Movement Arts, Health Promotion Leisure Studies at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., another writing group member and moderator at NATA's press event, provided an overview of NATA's seven guidelines for safe weight loss, as follows:

  1. Perform a body composition assessment, which is a scientific and objective method of estimating lean body mass and fat mass, to determine a body weight goal that is consistent with safety, good health and optimal performance in weight-classification sports (boxing, lightweight crew, sprint football, wrestling).
  2. Assess progress toward reaching the target weight based on body composition tests at regular intervals, by repeating the body composition tests. 
  3. Weight change should not occur at excessive rates - gain or loss should be steady and at a consistent and safe rate (i.e., 1 or 2 pounds per week for weight reduction); weight loss should not exceed 1.5 percent of body weight per week. 
  4. Both diet and exercise should be used as part of the strategy to change body weight. Weight management efforts should also follow the training plans and goals of the particular individual.
  5. Enough calories taken in from all food groups should occur during weight change, and metabolic and energy needs for physical activity must be considered when developing a diet for weight management.
  6. Education on safe dietary and weight management practices should be conducted on a regular and planned basis; and the involvement of athletic trainers and other trained nutrition, health and weight management experts is highly recommended. Coaches, peers and family members who are untrained in safe weight management should not attempt to provide information or participate in diet, body composition or weight management practices and should refrain from making comments on them.
  7. Athletes should be cautious with the use of dietary and weight management supplements, or when using any techniques that lead to rapidly changing body weight through unsubstantiated methods of weight reduction. Consideration of the governing boards' rulings on such supplements must be given.

Gregory W. Stewart, MD, chief, Division of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a team physician at Tulane University said,"There is nothing more important in sports today than keeping our athletes healthy and playing at peak performance levels; this position statement is an excellent way to get athletes, coaches, athletic trainers and others thinking about how to manage weight loss or gain effectively and safely."

"Active people sometimes adopt negative behaviors due to a poor body image from misinformation or influences from coaches, parents or peers," said Paula Sammarone Turocy, EdD, ATC, department chair at the John G. Rangos, Sr., School of Health Sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., and chair of the position statement writing group. "We are providing these safe weight loss practices and maintenance recommendations to ensure the health, well-being and performance of all athletes and physically active individuals, and educate the health experts, parents, coaches and others who work with them."

Craig A. Horswill, PhD, adjunct professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a member of the statement writing group, concurred: "Athletic trainers and other health professionals are pivotal in the health of athletes in their programs, providing hands-on guidance in the prevention and treatment of injuries and advising them on strategies for peak performance."

Dangers of unsafe weight management

According to NATA's statement, dietary restrictions over time can adversely affect the endocrine system, which can hinder the growth and functioning of muscles and bones. In addition, improper diet can impair thyroid function lowering metabolism (decreasing energy levels), hormone production (lowering estrogen levels and increasing the risk of osteoporosis and menstrual dysfunction) and suppressing the immune system, which often leads to an increased number of infections.

"The most common unsafe methods for achieving weight-loss goals include mixing dehydration with food restriction and improper dieting to reduce body fat," said Horswill. "Disordered eating to lose weight is a definite cause for alarm, even among seemingly healthy, athletic individuals."

"Weight loss becomes a problem when nutritional needs are not met or adequate hydration is not maintained," said Douglas B. Gregory, MD, a board certified pediatrician, chair and president of Lakeview Medical Center in Suffolk, Va., and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "This position statement by NATA gives health care professionals scientifically based recommendations to implement safe weight loss and weight maintenance programs for their physically active clients and athletes."

Improper weight management: it's personal

Another speaker at the press conference was Ashleigh Clare-Kearney, a two-time national champion in gymnastics and the first Louisiana State University student athlete to earn the distinction as an NCAA Woman of the Year finalist in 2009. Gymnastics has been an integral part of her life since she was five years old, and though she always maintained a healthy body image she was challenged by her physical size and the criticism of others during her high school years. While serving as captain of LSU's women's gymnastics team, Clare-Kearney sought out information to educate herself and others on the importance of fitness, conditioning, nutrition and hydration.The more she learned about and followed healthy weight management techniques, the better she felt and performed. Her living example helped change the attitudes and actions of other teammates who didn't eat properly.

Clare-Kearney also spoke about one of her teammates who refused to eat and even became sick to the point where she began to experience broken bones and other injuries. "You don't come back from that completely," she said. "You're already breaking down your body when you should be building it up. Educating yourself about dangers and best practices is the first step in making sure you're reaching weight goals safely. I told my teammates to think about their bodies beyond gymnastics; and that food is the fuel that energizes the body so you can perform at your peak potential."

Clare-Kearney's personal sentiment was echoed by LSU's senior associate athletic trainer and director of wellness, Shelly L. Mullenix, MS, ATC. "I am excited every day to work with highly motivated athletes, and I appreciate the importance of educating our coaches and administrators about the medical implications of unsafe dieting practices," she said. "We must all take a hands-on approach with our young athletes and really understand all the issues that they are dealing with when it comes to weight management."

Source: National Athletic Trainers' Association

1. National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Safe Weight Loss and Maintenance Practices in Sport and Exercise. J. Athl. Training 2011;46(3):322-336.

Posted June 24, 2011


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