The Female Athlete Triad and What It Means for Dancers

"To keep the body in good health is a duty..." - Buddha

The female athlete triad is a medical term that refers to three separate health conditions occurring at the same time in female athletes. The three conditions are:

Caloric Energy Deficit – Typically dancers are conscious of the food they eat.  They worry about ingesting too many calories and gaining weight. The problem with this logic is that calories also supply dancers with the energy they need to perform in class, rehearsals and on stage.  By reducing their caloric intake, dancers often end up burning more calories than they eat and create an energy deficit.

Irregular Menstrual Cycles – Many dancers experience irregular cycles or may find that their periods stop completely. The purpose of periods is to support the life of a developing baby. If the body does not have enough fat or is not at a healthy weight that could sustain both the body and a developing fetus, periods will stop. Dancers who are below a healthy body weight and/or lack body fat may experience irregular cycles or an absence of a cycle.

Osteoporosis – Irregular or absent menstrual cycles cause low levels of estrogen in the body. Our bodies need estrogen to be able to properly absorb and use calcium, which is necessary for bone growth. If our estrogen levels are low, calcium is not absorbed and bone growth in hindered. The lack of bone growth leads to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a decrease in bone density which results in weakened bones that can break easily and may result in stress fractures in dancers.

When all three of these factors combine, they create a weakened state and a very unhealthy dancer.

Knowing how to eat healthy is a key element in avoiding the female athlete triad. Dancers need to remember that they expend a lot of energy on a daily basis and that the food we eat is the fuel that powers our bodies. According to USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, active teen females should consume between 2200-2400 calories per day. It is extremely important that these calories be healthy calories that will provide dancers with enough energy to get through their long days of classes and rehearsals and enough protein to keep their muscles healthy. 

Learning about nutrition and what to eat before and after class and rehearsals is extremely important. It is also important that dancers who experience irregular or an absence of menstrual cycles speak with their health professionals to avoid sliding down the slippery slope of injury.

What happens to our muscles when we don't drink enough water?


“Water is the driving force in nature.” - Leonardo da Vinci

Summer is here, and dancers will constantly be encouraged to stay hydrated. Past blog posts have discussed which beverages are best to drink while exercising.

But why do we need to stay hydrated? 
And what happens inside our bodies when we become dehydrated?


Our bodies are 60% water and water can be found:
  • in the tears that keep our eyes moist and flush out dirt
  • in our saliva and our digestive system to help break down foods and absorb nutrients
  • in our blood to help transport nutrients and oxygen
  • in the synovial fluid in our joints to keep our bones from grinding against each other
  • around our brains and spinal cords where it provides cushioning
  • in our sweat which helps keep us cool and maintains our body temperature
  • in our urine where it eliminates toxins from our bodies
  • in our muscle cells which rely upon it to function properly     

        We lose water through our tears, our sweat and everyone time we use the bathroom but through other less obvious ways as well. We lose 250 milliliters a day by simply breathing. People can survive several weeks without food but only one week without water.

        People often use thirst as a signal that they are becoming dehydrated. Thirst in an unreliable indicator - when you grow thirsty, you are probably already dehydrated. Other symptoms of dehydration are chills, clammy skin, an increased heart rate, nausea, headache, dizziness and shortness of breath.

        Since dancers rely upon their muscles, it is important to know exactly what happens in the muscle cells when the body is lacking water. During any type of physical exercise or training, muscles experience minor tears, or microtraumas. When muscles contract, water flows from the blood into the muscles. This water is used when the body begins to repair the microtraumas that have occurred during exercise. Through muscular protein synthesis (MPS) damaged protein is moved out of the muscles, and stronger, denser, new versions of the damaged proteins are created.

        When the body is dehydrated, instead of the water traveling into the muscles from the blood, the blood begins to steal water from the muscle cells. Since MPS uses water, the creation of new protein slows down, muscle cells begin to shrivel, and the dancer will experience muscular fatigue.

        According to the American College of Sports Medicine, muscular fatigue increases the strain upon the body and the dancer or athlete needs to exert more effort to perform exercises which leads to an increased stress load upon the already often overworked body.

          It is for these reasons that dancers need to stay a step ahead of their bodies, drink proactively, and never allow themselves to grow dehydrated.