Young Wrestlers Fast, Sweat to Make Weight
Weight Loss Their Greatest Opponent
Before high school and college wrestlers can face their
opponents in the ring, they must first vanquish one in the
locker room, the scales that determine whether they're
eligible to compete in a given weight class. In order to
make the weight they want, many of these young athletes are
using fasting, dehydration, diet pills, and laxatives as
ways to lose weight quickly.
How widespread is this potentially deadly practice? A recent
study of wrestlers in Michigan high schools found 7 out of
10 used at least one possibly harmful weight loss method
each week of the wrestling session -- and just over half of
them used at least two methods each week. About a quarter of
the young wrestlers lost 10 pounds or more during the
season, and 11% fasted longer than 24 hours before a match.
The study was published in the May issue of Medicine and
Science in Sports and Exercise.
"This study reinforces what we've known for years," lead
author Robert Kiningham, MD, tells WebMD. "While previous
studies have looked at elite, highly committed wrestlers, we
looked at everyone. Disturbingly, we found the same
percentage of harmful behaviors as previous studies of elite
wrestlers, suggesting these behaviors are widespread."
Kiningham is an assistant clinical professor and director of
the sports medicine fellowship program at the University of
Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor.
Many wrestlers try to compete in an unrealistically low
weight class because they believe this gives them a
competitive advantage, says Doug Andersen, DC, nutrition
consultant for West Coast Sports Performance and Sports
Medicine Consultants in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and a
nutritionist for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team.
"First, wrestlers should qualify for a sensible weight
class," he says. "If you skip one meal the day beforehand in
order to drop two or three pounds, that's one thing. But
when someone tries to drop tremendous amounts of weight, 10
pounds or more, we're concerned. While they may not have an
eating disorder in the strict sense, they certainly have
"In 1997 three healthy college-age men all died because they
were trying to make weight for the wrestling team, using
similar rapid-weight-loss regimens based on dehydration.
Wrestlers put on nonpermeable clothing and exercise hard,
and then don't rehydrate themselves. This is dangerous,"
says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist
at New York University Medical Center and an exercise
Short-term studies have found rapid weight loss can lead to
a decline in the ability to think clearly, loss of athletic
strength and power, and mood changes, Heller says. No one
knows if there are long-term effects, because long-term
studies haven't been done.
The authors of the Michigan study conclude by saying,
"Altering these entrenched behaviors will require a unified
effort by coaches, administrators, parents, and wrestlers
throughout the sport."
However, some coaches don't see any need for change.
"Wrestlers have a short-term goal, to make their weight,"
says Dick Bellock. "They may not eat for a day but we all
skip meals once in awhile. Teenage kids get hungry. They
make weight, they eat right afterward; that isn't
necessarily binge eating."
Bellock wrestled in high school and college and is now the
athletic director of McKay High School in Salem, Ore.
Bob Ferraro agrees.
"We already have safety measures in place," says Ferraro,
executive director of the National High School Coaches
Association, based in Easton, Pa. "Every wrestler must be
examined by a physician, and the physician determines the
weight class that wrestler will compete at. These issues
have already been addressed."
Andersen, however, believes changes are needed.
"Today, wrestlers weigh-in hours before or the day before
the match. They should have to weigh-in just beforehand. If
someone had to wrestle in a dehydrated state, weak as a
kitten, they wouldn't like it."
Since the data was collected for the Michigan study, the
state has instituted a new program using mandatory weight
standards based on a measured percentage of body fat.
Kiningham hopes the new program will be effective in
limiting pressures on young wrestlers to engage in unhealthy
weight-loss behaviors in order to compete.
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About The Author
Michael Lewis has been collecting articles and information
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