So Is No Pain No Gain Really The Answer? Speaking to a group of international athletes a few months ago, one world-class triathlete and regular Iron-Woman competitor commented privately to me that she would train intensively on a daily basis to reach competitive levels – and judged herself to be at peak fitness when her periods had stopped! Asked if she felt that this might be detrimental to her health she shrugged: “Maybe – but it’s the only way to win medals!”
The pressure to train hard and strive for ultra-slimness is not necessarily confined to top-level athletes. The plethora of fun runs and other charity events with the commitment to train hard in order to produce best performance may sometimes damage rather than enhance health. The intensive training regimes in many gyms where the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy still exists can significantly increase the risk of injury.
Those who engage in a programme of regular moderate exercise gain significant benefits to their health and wellbeing, have more energy and increased vitality. However, exercising too hard, too often, can be harmful to health. If you’re overdoing it, this can cause you to pick up an array of minor illnesses such as coughs, colds, sore throats, cold sores and flu, be more prone to injury and for females there may be other complications, such as irregular periods and loss of bone density.
Research shows that females who are highly physically active, in particular those involved in sports that require a low body fat percentage for success, increase their chances of either a delayed onset of menstruation (menarche), irregular periods (oligomenorrhea) or complete cessation of periods (amenorrhea). For example, ballet dancers and gymnasts, who are normally very lean, report far more incidences of menstrual irregularities and a higher mean age for menarche compared to other girls. One recent study showed that around 40% of female athletes in endurance-type sports have some menstrual irregularity. Ballet dancers, gymnasts and female distance runners also report more eating disorders than normal, which worsens the problem.
When menstrual function is irregular or absent in premenopausal women, there is an increased risk of bone loss and of injury to joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons when participating in high-intensity exercise.
Some researchers also now believe that the body somehow ‘senses’ when the physical stresses are high and energy levels are inadequate to sustain a pregnancy, and thus cease ovulation in order to prevent conception.
This condition has been termed by exercise scientists as the ‘Female Athlete Triad’ and consists of amenorrhea, osteoporosis and disordered eating. Whilst it was originally identified as a problem associated with elite athletes, it is now becoming more common in girls and women who are overly committed to getting extremely fit and very thin. The condition often results as pressures are placed on young women to achieve or maintain unrealistically low body weight. This is something that can and should be avoided – if girls and women are made aware of the potential dangers and are able to recognise the early warning signs.
A recent UK survey reported that many athletes believed that disordered eating practices are harmless and that losing weight by any means will enhance performance! In reality, the reverse is true – that inadequate calorie intake and disordered eating practices impair physical performance and affect health. Problems result from a depletion of energy stores, dehydration, loss of muscle mass, low blood sugar levels, electrolyte abnormalities, anaemia, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. Also, the study reported that many female athletes did not regard amenorrhea as a problem – indeed several reported using it an indicator of an adequate training intensity!
However, it is known that the low concentrations of ovarian hormones in amenorrhea and oligomenorrhea are strongly associated with reduced bone mass and increased rates of bone loss. This loss of bone in young women is similar to bone loss in postmenopausal women and leads to osteoporosis.
As always, prevention is better than cure. And for those girls and women engaged in regular vigorous exercise at whatever level of ability and performance, knowing how to recognise the early warning signals of over-exercising and then taking informed action to make sure things get better – not worse – is an invaluable skill in promoting personal health, fitness and wellbeing.
The message is the same for those just beginning an exercise programme, keen to lose weight, who think that ‘more is better’ and go completely ‘o.t.t.’ and overdo it. So instead of feeling good after exercise, they feel absolutely shattered – and have difficulty getting out of bed the morning after! For example, most of us would have difficulty jogging for 30 minutes – and would likely suffer – but most of us could walk briskly for half an hour and get significant benefits. Over-enthusiasm at the gym can sometimes take days to recover from – a sensible workout is one that doesn’t leave you totally exhausted – but rather with an after-glow that makes you feel good.
There are lots of examples of physical activities, such as gardening, cleaning the car, cleaning windows, general housework – and even ironing – which are great for improving overall mobility and fitness without overdoing it.
The key message is that exercise is great for health and wellbeing and will help you tone up and slim down. But make sure that you exercise well within your capabilities – and don’t overdo it. Remember, there is gain, without pain!