Tough regimen, skinny diet can make gymnasts, dancers shorter


June 28, 1994|By Dr. Gabe Mirkin | Dr. Gabe Mirkin,United Feature Syndicate

Gymnasts and ballerinas who train seriously before they reach puberty often lose an inch or two of adult height, but it's probably caused by not eating enough food, rather than by the exercise.

A recent study from Sweden showed that prepubescent female gymnasts grow more slowly than their classmates and do not have the height spurt that occurs in most girls just before they go into puberty, so they end up shorter.

Irregular menstrual periods in older competitive female athletes are caused by not eating enough food also. Ballerinas and gymnasts are obsessed with thinness and try to limit the amount of food that they eat. This rarely happens to young female athletes in sports that do not benefit from thinness.

Hard exercise before puberty is also associated with a delayed onset of menstruation. For every year that young gymnasts and ballerinas train hard before puberty, the onset of menstruation is delayed by an average of five months. This is probably caused by not eating enough food also and is not harmful.

On average, women who competed in sports before reaching puberty become pregnant, have the same rate of obstetric complications and have children at the same age as nonathletes.

Young female athletes are just as trainable and are no more likely to be injured than grown women. The major problem with hard athletic training for young children is a tough coach or parent who pushes the child too hard. In one study, almost 90 percent of young female primary school cross-country runners did not go on to compete in high school.

Q: My legs feel fine when I'm resting, but after about five minutes of walking or jogging, my calves hurt. What can I do?

A: You may have intermittent claudication, a partial obstruction of the blood flow to your legs. When susceptible people eat too much food and fat, plaques accumulate in their arteries.

At rest, your leg muscles do not require much blood, so you can feel comfortable, even with severe obstruction of the arteries leading to your legs. However, when you walk, your leg muscles require a large amount of blood, and a partial obstruction of the arteries can prevent extra blood from getting through. Then, your leg muscles suffer from a lack of oxygen, and they hurt and can go into spasm.

If you develop pain in your legs when walking, check with your doctor. Arteriosclerotic plaques do not form in just one place, so if you have plaques in your legs, you are at increased risk of having plaques in the arteries leading to your heart and brain.

Most doctors recommend a supervised program of walking until the legs just start to hurt, resting and starting again after the pain has gone away. Several studies show that within six weeks, a supervised exercise program can triple the distance you can walk without feeling pain.

You should also be on a low-fat diet and perhaps medication to lower your cholesterol. The only drug that has been shown to delay the pain of intermittent claudication is called Pentoxifylline, which has been around for more than 20 years.

Q: Do you recommend eating fish or taking fish oil pills to lower cholesterol?

A: A lot of people eat fish because they think it will help to lower their cholesterol and prevent heart attacks, but what you eat as the rest of your diet is even more important.

Several studies have shown that eating fish lowers cholesterol, but they did not assess how varying fat intake at the same time affects blood cholesterol levels.

A study in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that eating fish lowers cholesterol only if a person reduces his intake of other fats.

Deep-water fish are loaded with a type of unsaturated fat called omega-3. If you eat extra fish and do not reduce your intake of other fats, blood levels of the bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides go up.

The average American takes in 37 percent of calories from fat. If you reduce your intake of fat to 30 percent, blood levels of both the bad LDL cholesterol and the good HDL cholesterol go down. If you eat fish daily when you reduce your fat intake to less than 30 percent, blood levels of the good HDL cholesterol do not go down.

This study shows that your total diet is far more important than just eating fish, olive oil, oat bran or anything else. You can help prevent heart attacks by eating fish if you also reduce your intake of other fats in your diet.

Dr. Mirkin is a practicing physician in Silver Spring specializing in sports medicine and nutrition.

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