Ultimate Fitness

Cory Holding
September 01, 2000

Tennis try-outs were the first week of classes. A district champion in high school, I walked onto the court that first day a winner, a tennis machine. For the next three hours I ran, hopped, stroked, served, sprinted, push-upped, volleyed, and squatted. I walked off the court on the verge of death.

I returned, valiantly, for the next two days. In the meantime I couldn't walk up steps or sit with any semblance of ease in class. My legs ached. My rear ached. My arms ached, and my shoulders ached. "Yup, I can do this," I still thought.

Penn Staters run on track

The third day our coach gave us "The Talk." "I want you to be in optimal shape," he said. We were to sit together in the dining hall so the "veterans" could show the newcomers how to eat for energy, how to eat to maximize our "tennis shape" and strength. Ultimate fitness, he emphasized, led to ultimate tennis.

He scared me. I did not share his vision of an "optimal shape." I quit.

The stress I felt is a very common phenomenon among collegiate athletes, according to Nancy Williams, assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State. Regardless of its source—the coach, the competition, the physical effort—stress forces a woman's body to compensate. One system that stress and exercise can affect, Williams notes, is the female reproductive system. "What I want to understand," she explains, "is whether psychological factors can add to menstrual cycle problems."

Williams—young, fit, and animated—explains that her interest in stress, fitness, and menstruation stems from work she did as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Judy Cameron at the University of Pittsburgh. "We used to put monkeys on treadmills for hours. Every day, for months at a time, until they stopped menstruating." The exercise, she explains, had interrupted the monkeys' normal cycles.

Cameron set up an experiment in which eight monkeys, running two hours a day and not menstruating, were split into two groups. Four of these monkeys received double their usual amount of food; four received just the usual amount. Of the four that ate more food, two menstruated within two weeks, the other two within two months. Because the well-fed monkeys menstruated despite the grueling treadmill workouts and the stress of being forced to run for hours at a time, Cameron and Williams concluded that energy balance—not physical or psychological stress—causes menstrual loss.

When Williams joined the Penn State faculty in 1997, she says, "I wanted to take what I learned with monkeys and apply it to humans."

Williams began her investigation by surveying 200 female athletes (as well as a lecture class used to represent the "non-athlete population"). The survey questions ranged from menstrual patterns to self-esteem and self-image to "Do you smoke?" Participants completed the survey and collected urine samples every day for a month. Then Williams shared the investigation with her student, Kathleen Flecker.

The walls of the labs are lined with exercise bikes, tread-mills, beds, blood pressure machines, and computers. Flecker rummages through files of records, tables, and charts. Pulling out a chart, she says she tested the urine samples and found that indeed, athletes have more menstrual cycle problems than the "non-athlete population." Then she analyzed the data from the surveys. Flecker found that the athletes whose periods were irregular had a significantly higher "social physique anxiety" than regularly menstruating athletes. Basically, the first group was more concerned about how others—spectators, coaches, and peers—saw them, like a gymnast who worries that she looks too tall, or too pudgy, or too muscular, in the eyes of her on-lookers.

Flecker also found that athletes in the first group tended to consciously restrain their eating more than those with regular periods did—like a runner who only allows herself a small salad for dinner after covering six miles of track at practice. This big energy expense coupled with a small energy intake leaves the body with a negative energy balance. Because of this negative balance, the body sucks energy from the reproductive system. The menstrual cycle, in turn, becomes irregular.

"We linked a poorer body image—a type of stress—to menstrual cycle irregularities," Williams says. And the inconvenience of an irregular cycle is not the only effect: loss of menstruation lowers the body's production of estrogen, and loss of estrogen at a young age increases the risk of bone-degenerating osteoporosis later in life.

Williams' goal is to use her survey technique to predict which incoming female athletes might be at risk for psychological stressors—to "predict," she says, "and therefore attempt to prevent."

Kathleen Flecker graduated in May 2000 with a B.S. in vertebrate physiology from the Eberly College of Science; her honors degree is in kinesiology. Nancy I. Williams, Sc.D., is assistant professor of kinesiology and physiology in the College of Health and Human Development, 267 Recreation Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1346;
niw1@psu.edu. Funding comes from the Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program, College of Health and Human Development. Writer Cory Holding graduated in May 2000 with a B.A. in English.

Last Updated September 01, 2000