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Osteoporosis Health Center

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Overtraining and Osteoporosis

Are you exercising too much? Eating too little? Have your periods become irregular or stopped? If so, you may be putting yourself at high risk for several serious problems that could affect your health, your ability to remain active, and your risk for injuries. You also may be putting yourself at risk for developing osteoporosis, a disease in which bone density is decreased, leaving your bones vulnerable to fracture (breaking).

Why Is Missing My Period Such a Big Deal?

Some athletes see amenorrhea (the absence of menstrual periods) as a sign of successful training. Others see it as a great answer to a monthly inconvenience. And some young women accept it blindly, not stopping to think of the consequences. But missing your menstrual periods is often a sign of decreased estrogen levels. And lower estrogen levels can lead to osteoporosis, a disease in which your bones become brittle and more likely to break.

Usually, bones become brittle and break when women are much older, but some young women, especially those who exercise so much that their periods stop, develop brittle bones, and may start to have fractures at a very early age. Some 20-year-old female athletes have been said to have the bones of an 80-year-old woman. Even if bones don’t break when you’re young, low estrogen levels during the peak years of bone-building, the preteen and teen years, can affect bone density for the rest of your life. And studies show that bone growth lost during these years may not ever be regained.

Broken bones don’t just hurt - they can cause lasting malformations. Have you noticed that some older women and men have a stooped posture? This is not a normal sign of aging. Fractures from osteoporosis have left their spines permanently altered.

Overtraining can cause other problems besides missed periods. If you don’t take in enough calcium and vitamin D (among other nutrients) bone loss may result. This may lead to decreased athletic performance, decreased ability to exercise or train at desired levels of intensity or duration, and increased risk of injury.

Who Is at Risk for These Problems?

Girls and women who may be trying to lose weight by restricting their eating and/or engaging in rigorous exercise regimes are at risk for these health problems. This may include serious athletes, "gym rats" (who spend considerable amounts of time and energy working out), and/or girls and women who believe "you can never be too thin."

"I was training really hard - all the time. Finally, my parents made me quit the cross country team...I was eating almost nothing, training with a stress fracture...I trained even when my body ached. I thought the pain, the headaches, and the missed menstrual periods were normal. I thought that was how a 'champion' was supposed to feel and train. I was proud of myself for being so thin and disciplined, and losing all the 'baby fat' I had carried throughout junior high school. My friends all said, “Gosh, you have lost so much weight!” But I wasn't in control. After my parents made me quit the team and took me to get help, I realized that my training regime was not normal or healthy. I realized that I was hurting myself, and that I did not have to be obsessive about my weight, eating habits, and exercise in order to be attractive. I still exercise now, and I watch what I eat, but I am much more relaxed, healthier (my doctor says!), and happier. I have more energy - and more fun. I don’t have to set any records anymore, and I am a champion anyway!"

- An athlete who recovered from problems associated with overtraining and missed periods.

WebMD Public Information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health

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