Sports participation in children has a variety of benefits, including physical, emotional, social, and even educational. Many of these benefits extend into adulthood. Unfortunately, as pressure to perform in youth athletics becomes more intense, the need to adjust body weight with the goal of gaining a competitive advantage may lead to unhealthy weight-control practices.
Attempts to control body weight for sports is most common in adolescents. Many teenagers who are involved in gymnastics, dance, cross country, or wrestling may seek weight loss. Those involved in football, wrestling, or weight lifting may try to pack on extra pounds. It is important for young athletes to focus more on specific performance parameters, such as strength, speed, or jump height, rather than weight. This is especially true since their bodies are experiencing a plethora of changes beyond their control influenced by puberty and hormones.
Although weight loss should not necessarily be their primary goal for participation, sports are a great way for overweight adolescents to get regular physical activity as part of a weight loss plan. In general, they should not lose more than 1.5% of their total body weight, or 1-2 pounds, per week. More rapid weight loss is usually due to loss of muscle mass. Loss of muscle tissue may actually decrease athletic performance.
Unhealthy weight loss practices, such as food restriction, purging, inappropriate use of substances, or voluntary dehydration, should never be utilized. Not only can they lead to a decline in athletic ability, they can increase risk of injury or lead to a number of serious medical problems. Some of these include growth delays, menstrual cycle abnormalities, mental health issues, and changes in heart, kidney, hormonal, and gastrointestinal function.
Wrestlers have the unique challenge of mandatory weigh-ins. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement regarding weight in young athletes, mat-side weigh-ins prior to matches are the most appropriate way to encourage safe weight management and proper hydration.
Weight gain for the purpose of improving athletic ability should be the result of increasing muscle rather than fat so that it will translate into more strength and power. Increases in fat can decrease performance, but unfortunately, it is easier to gain fat than muscle. Similar to weight loss, weight gain should not exceed 1.5% of total body weight, or 1-2 pounds, per week.
In general, athletes should increase their caloric intake by 300-400 calories per day. Supplement drinks or bars are a convenient way to ingest more calories, but they sometimes contain too many calories or the wrong ratio of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Weight lifting is a good way to promote muscle growth and strength, but athletes must allow adequate time between intense workouts for tissue recovery.
Excessive or rapid weight gain can lead to serious medical issues. Overweight athletes are at higher risk for musculoskeletal injury and heat-associated illness. It is also worth noting that 75-80% of overweight adolescents will be overweight as adults. This increases their risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, heart disease, and diabetes.
Finally, it is important for parents and coaches to recognize their role in promoting healthy weight expectations for children and adolescents participating in sports. An emphasis on improving performance and setting realistic, measurable goals should take precedence over the number on the scale. The temptation to use performance enhancing substances or the risk of developing eating disorders is real for young people who take sports seriously. This is an important time in their lives and sports should be a way to enhance them as individuals, not set them back. The keys to success are moderation, persistence, and patience.
For both weight gain and weight loss, it is both reasonable and recommended to consult with a registered dietician and your child’s doctor prior to starting a program.