Opinion Former Article

Gymnasts under pressure at higher risk of eating disorders

Professor Mike McNamee and Clinical Associate Professor Jacinta Tan, who carried out the study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), are calling for reforms to improve the welfare of elite gymnasts. Their recommendations include a review of how frequently gymnasts are weighed and warn that more than once a week can encourage them to fixate on their weight.

With 20 competitive events in this year’s Commonwealth Games, it is again clear how gymnasts can be put under intense pressure to win medals. Eating disorders can have serious physical and psychological consequences and are a high risk in some elite sports where weight management is critical because of the level of performance required to succeed.

However, Mike McNamee, Professor of Applied Ethics at Swansea University, says it is important to put the findings in context and that weight control is a necessary and deliberate strategy to achieve medal success in some elite sports.

He said: “We found it problematic distinguishing between abnormal eating-related behaviour and behaviours used as a strategy for sporting success. “Some gymnasts even felt they could switch on their eating habits in the period running up to and including competition, but then switch them off in their breaks from training, or after retirement.”

The study is one of the few UK studies ever carried out into eating disorders in top-level athletes and was carried out in partnership with British Gymnastics,  the UK National governing body for the sport of Gymnastics.

The researchers asked young male and female gymnasts to complete anonymous questionnaires on eating behaviours and wellbeing.

Many reported a strong preoccupation with weight and mild depressive symptoms. However, the gymnasts had high levels of self-esteem possibly because they were enjoying success at a young age.

Coaches were also interviewed as part of the study which focused on tumbling, rhythmic and acrobatic gymnasts.

The researchers identified a significant “paternalistic” culture among coaches, with gyms acting as surrogate families for athletes although coaches appear to know little about nutrition or eating disorders.

Dr Tomlinson, a Senior Sports Physician and Chief Medical Officer for British Gymnastics said: “It is important that those involved in the sport have a good awareness about the risks, and the British Gymnastics Medical Team has developed a pathway of care for any elite gymnast who develops an eating disorder.”

Attitudes towards weight also varied between different types of gymnasts. For example, acrobatic gymnasts work as a team with the person at the top light and those at the bottom strong, yet rhythmic gymnasts are penalised by judges if they are not very lean and slender.

Females displayed more symptoms of eating disorders than males because of the constant focus on body shape.

The psychiatrist, Dr Jacinta Tan, from Swansea University’s College of Medicine, said the need for gymnasts to watch their weight was a concern especially when this involved children.

The psychiatrist said: “There’s an ethical obligation to give young people who suffer harm as a result of their sporting sacrifice and commitment to receive appropriate monitoring and care if the nation wants to continue to see its athletes winning on an international stage.”

The researchers make several recommendations for those working to develop sport policy and improve the welfare of elite gymnasts. These include:
Greater awareness among doctors, coaches, parents and athletes of the risk of eating disorders and how to deal with them. Funded referral and assessment for all athletes affected.
Monitoring of height, weight and maturation of young athletes. Policies are necessary if they are shown to be below average
British Gymnastics said it welcomed the report although, the organisation’s Chief Medical Officer emphasised that most elite athletes pursue the goal of ‘optimal body composition,’ not just gymnasts.

Dr Tomlinson said: “We would also stress however that most elite sports participants pursue optimal body composition: this is only in part an aesthetic matter and more importantly a factor in achieving optimal power to weight ratios, thereby improving performance and reducing injury risk.”



For further information contact:

Clinical Associate Professor Jacinta Tan
Email:  j.o.a.tan@swansea.ac.uk
Telephone 01792 602531

ESRC Press Office:

Susie Watts
Email: Susie.watts@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone: 01793 413119

Aaron Boardley
Email: Aaron.Boardley@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone: 01793 413122

Follow @ESRCPress on Twitter for the latest news and coverage.


1.      This release is based on the findings from “Ethical aspects of the impact of eating disorders on female elite athletes” funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Professor Mike McNamee and Clinical Associate Professor Jacinta Tan at Swansea University. The results have been disseminated to range of audiences including British Gymnastics and Sports Coach UK.

2.      Methodology: The project involved gymnasts, either elite or those who had competed nationally, completing questionnaires which measured self-esteem, levels of depression, attitudes towards eating and symptoms of eating disorders. The responses were anonymous. Researchers also interviewed elite gymnasts and carried out semi-structured interviews with coaches as well as other staff at British Gymnastics.

3.      The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

4.      The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as good.

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