Atletas jóvenes: equilibrio entre el rendimiento y el desarrollo saludable

Para las niñas y las jóvenes que practican deportes, es importante comprender los beneficios y los riesgos de un entrenamiento serio.

It's game on for the girls. Millions of young women across the world are participating in sports, including soccer, track and field, lacrosse, basketball, hockey, volleyball, and tennis. At the highest levels of their sports, young female athletes are bringing home Olympic medals, setting world records, capturing championships and dominating the field.

In the United States, the number of girls who are playing high school sports has jumped more than tenfold since 1971, when fewer than 300,000 girls were involved in sports. The rise is due in part to the passage of Title IX, a 1972 federal law designed to protect women from discrimination within federally funded educational activities, including sports.

For young female athletes — and their parents, coaches and other mentors — it's important to understand both the benefits and risks of performance training. When girls challenge their bodies to the limits, this shouldn't come at the expense of healthy physical development, especially during the crucial adolescent years.

Benefits of sports

Sports and girls are a good match. Multiple studies have documented the health benefits of sports participation for girls and young women, including improved fitness, increased lean muscle mass and, often, better eating habits.

There are social and emotional benefits, too. Interacting with teammates and coaches can sharpen social skills. The discipline involved in mastering a sport can promote a sense of control, competence and self-esteem. Studies also show that young female athletes are more likely than nonathletes are to avoid risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and having early or frequent sexual intercourse. Female athletes are also less likely to say they're trying to lose weight and are less likely to be hit by a partner or contemplate suicide.

Sports participation can have a positive effect on academics as well. Athletes often achieve higher grades than nonathletes do and have a higher graduation rate.

Por qué importa el equilibrio

Además de los beneficios, los deportes también implican algunos riesgos, en especial para las niñas y las jóvenes que compiten en niveles más altos. Los atletas de elite, en particular, entrenan varias horas por día. A medida que aumentan las exigencias al cuerpo, aumentan también los riesgos para la salud, tanto inmediatos como a largo plazo.

Uno de los mayores problemas es la alimentación inadecuada. Cuando el ejercicio físico es intenso, las calorías (energía) que se queman pueden exceder las calorías incorporadas a través de los alimentos. Si el equilibrio energético del cuerpo se distorsiona de manera constante, pueden generarse cambios en la producción de hormonas, lo que puede tener consecuencias graves para la salud, incluidas irregularidades en la menstruación y debilidad de los huesos.

La deficiencia crónica de energía o la baja disponibilidad de energía suele ser más común entre las niñas o las mujeres jóvenes que compiten en deportes que exaltan la delgadez, como correr maratones, bailar o hacer gimnasia y patinaje artísticos, aunque puede ocurrir en cualquier atleta.

En el lenguaje de la medicina del deporte, la combinación de baja disponibilidad de energía, irregularidad del período menstrual y debilidad ósea con frecuencia se denomina la "tríada de la atleta femenina", aunque las jóvenes atletas femeninas no son las únicas afectadas. Tampoco tienen que estar presentes los tres componentes para que la salud se vea perjudicada.

El entrenamiento físico intenso también puede preparar el terreno para otros problemas. Todo deporte competitivo conlleva un mayor riesgo de lesiones, como fracturas por sobrecarga, problemas de rodilla y lesiones en los pies y los tobillos. Pero el no incorporar calorías suficientes también contribuye a la debilidad de los huesos y las fracturas. Las sesiones de ejercicio físico intenso y vigoroso (en especial si es ejercicio de resistencia de larga duración) también pueden deprimir el sistema inmunitario. Esto significa que los atletas que participan en esas actividades tan exigentes son más propensos a resfriarse, contagiarse la gripe u otras infecciones.

Caring for a young athlete

Both male and female athletes have unique needs for nutrition and training, and each sport has its own nuances. Unfortunately, however, young athletes don't always receive tailored information to help them understand how to stay healthy while also staying on top of their game.

Most teens and adults have misconceptions about the nutritional needs for training and performance. Research has shown that adolescent girl athletes in particular are not aware of the risks associated with overtraining. For example, one warning sign of an underlying problem — such as having an irregular period or no period at all — is often viewed as a normal part of being a female athlete or even as a bonus.

To ensure that girls who play sports develop in a healthy, normal way, both athletes and the adults in their lives need to know about the few, but potentially serious, health risks of training and performance. Making sure girls and young women engage in appropriate levels of physical training and receive proper nutrition can go a long way toward preventing problems.

March 16, 2019