There’s no doubt that undertaking regular exercise and fuelling your body with nutritious foods is a healthy project to undertake. But what happens when it goes too far?

We’ve witnessed many examples of people who have made positive changes in their lives but ended up going too far. Addiction to exercise is being studied by academics and is estimated to affect 3% of those who exercise. This rises to 10% in high-performance runners.

Exercise addiction has a range of negative impacts, from exacerbating mental health conditions to severe injuries and a lowered immune system. For women, this can lead to the female athlete triad – a serious condition.

What is the female athlete triad?

The female athlete triad is a disorder that combines three conditions: low energy (due to abnormal eating habits), low bone mineral density (osteoporosis), and menstrual dysfunction (amenorrhea). It’s caused by overexercising and extreme dieting, and it has a range of negative impacts on women. For professional athletes, the severe impacts of the female athlete triad mean they may need to stop competing. Nobody wants to hang up their running shoes prematurely!

While there are no specific sports that cause the female athlete triad, it correlates with sports in which a thin physique is favoured. This means runners, dancers, and gymnasts could be at a higher risk. In a world where women are constantly pressured to be thin, it’s the perfect storm to create such problems.

How does the female athlete triad affect women?

There are three main conditions that make up the female athlete triad, all of which are serious. Disordered eating often goes in hand with compulsive exercise and correlates with the body image issues which are prevalent in this condition. In order to reach a thin ideal, women will combine extreme workouts with crash diets or limited foods that don’t provide enough nutrition or energy.

This lack of nutrition and calorie intake has a big impact on a woman’s menstrual cycle, as do the physical and mental stressors that come from too much exercise. This can lead to irregular periods, and in serious instances, can stop periods entirely. This is a sign of a major hormone imbalance, as over-exercising and disordered eating can lower oestrogen in the body.

This lack of oestrogen is what leads to bone density problems. The female hormone is essential for bone health and density, which is why women are more prone to osteoporosis after menopause. This lack of oestrogen as a result of the female athlete triad brings on early osteoporosis, which can lead to bones fracturing too easily – for example, when coughing.

These three overarching conditions that make up the female athlete triad cause a number of additional symptoms, which include fatigue, unhealthy weight loss, and self-induced vomiting.

How can you prevent the female athlete triad?

The female athlete triad often comes as a result of women taking their well-being or fitness goals too far. Often, if you’re doing this without supervision, it can be difficult to identify the point where you start to overexercise or over-restrict your food. Personal trainers and nutritionists can help you understand how you can fuel your body to achieve your professional athlete goals, as well as helping you to understand your limits. It’s recommended to use services like this anyway if you’re a professionally competitive sportswoman, so you may already have access to nutritionists and trainers – speaking to them about these issues can help you to prevent or overcome them.

Coaches that don’t focus their services on weight loss are recommended. The French weight loss food industry alone is expected to hit revenues of over €3.3 billion in 2022, thanks in large part to its targeting of women. From this, we can see the entire weight loss industry will be significantly more profitable. Coaches will offer weight loss support as their primary focus because it’s such a lucrative service. Choosing coaches and nutritionists who instead prioritise the health of your body and achieving your goals will help you to stay focused.

If you’re finding that your overexercising is fuelled by an overwhelming pressure to be thin or an idealised body type, this is a psychological issue that you can overcome with the help of a therapist or your doctor. Confiding in those close to you is also a great way to get support – your family and friends only want the best for you. You wouldn’t want to see your loved ones go through this after all.

How to treat the female athlete triad

Many women who suffer from the female athlete triad don’t know it’s a recognised disorder, and that makes it hard to receive treatment. You may notice that your periods have become irregular or have stopped, but it can be difficult to recognise your disordered eating before you get to the stage of early-onset osteoporosis.

Seeking medical support once you begin to notice any of the symptoms associated with the female athlete triad is essential. If your bones have already become weakened, a doctor can help you to build up bone strength again with your diet or supplements. In most cases, the impacts of the female athlete triad are reversible if you seek treatment early enough.

The female athlete triad is a serious disorder. It has a number of triggers that centre around an idealised thin body, which often results in women eating too little and exercising too much. While it can affect any woman undertaking an exercise and healthy eating regime, it’s particularly prevalent amongst professional athletes. There are steps you can take to prevent the female athlete triad, as well as support you can seek if it has already had an impact on you.