Athletic Success Boosts Self-Esteem, But There’s a Hidden Danger

Muscular man running on beach

Numerous studies have shown that involvement with sports has protective benefits. Young people who participate in athletics often exhibit improved self-confidence, a more positive attitude and better overall health. Yet athletes also face a threefold greater risk for developing some form of eating disorder. Eating disorders often occur with or lead to depression. Researchers studied the connection between being an athlete, eating disorders, and depression. 

What’s the Connection?

Certainly there are sports where body shape and size are of exaggerated importance. Maintaining ideal body weights for competition can help boost athletic performance for sports such as gymnastics or wrestling. But eating disorders wind up robbing the body of nutrition and vitality. It’s dangerously easy to slip from the realm of strict diet adherence to compulsive food restriction or purging. When that happens, muscle tone, bone strength and energy are all diminished. Why do some athletes cross that boundary? Is depression a factor?

The British Study

A new British study  looked into the suspected link between depression, eating disorders and athleticism. Researchers in the U.K. assessed 122 athletes at the beginning and end of a six-month study period. Initially, athletes were asked to fill out surveys covering areas such as:

  • Current weight
  • Desired weight
  • Diet history
  • Attitudes toward eating
  • Concerns about losing control
  • Personal restraint
  • Self-image or weight concerns
  • Prior diagnoses related to eating

In addition, a mental health assessment was performed that included a check for signs of depression.

The Follow-Up

After six months, the athletes were re-examined on eating habits, psychological well-being and body mass index. All these measures and any signs of depression were compared to baseline assessments. The researchers discovered evidence that athletes who started out with dietary disturbances showed a slightly increased risk for also developing depression.

Eating Disorders Signal Later Depression

The findings appear to partially contradict the presumed mental health benefits to be gained through sports. One explanation could be that the inability to meet or maintain exceptionally high standards combined with strict dietary regimens and sports-related pressures can produce depression even among top athletes. Depression, in turn, can trigger the deepening of a budding eating disorder.

Protecting Professional Athletes

The researchers in this study conclude by encouraging professional sports owners and managers to take these risks seriously, and to safeguard the wellness of athletes by being alert to the dangers of depression. Eating disorders eventually reduce athletic performance, which can in turn deepen the surrounding mental health issues. Sports authorities who watch for signs of eating disorder or depression may save not only an athletic career, but a life.

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