“I used to be able to eat anything and in any amount,” a young graduate student who had come to me for weight-loss consultation told me. Since I began competitive swimming in high school, I would burn off so many calories that keeping my weight on was a problem. And I swam all through college as well. But I stopped now that I am getting my Ph.D., and after a couple of years sitting in class or in the library, I have gained 40 pounds. My anxiety as well as my weight has increased.”
Donna (not her real name) was in the enviable position of eating everything and never worrying about portion size. Even on school days, she would spend at least five hours training and when preparing for competition, more hours. And when she felt anxious over college applications and then later about getting into graduate school, for example, several minutes of doing laps decreased her anxiety and left her feeling calm and in control. But all that changed and she now had to learn how to eat like the rest of us who can never approach the level and intensity of a training regimen for a competitive athlete.
Donna’s predicament was not unique. Indeed, she joined the ranks of young athletes whose participation in sports, even at an Olympic level, stopped when they did not transition to professional status. And this group is folded into the company of professional athletes who at some point in their lives (Tom Brady notwithstanding) decide that age, injury, and competition from younger players are good reasons to hang up their bathing suits or shoulder pads. And many experience changes in their body, food intake, mood and general satisfaction. As a trainer in a gym told me, “How can they not feel depressed when no one is cheering for them or they are no longer feeling that adrenaline rush from a perfect gymnastic performance or another home run?”
Gymnasts are only one category of athlete who must deal with body image, weight, eating issues and mood changes after withdrawing from competition. In a small study, the authors found the excessive concern over body image, weight gain and the use of laxatives and excessive exercise to restrict weight gain. (1)
Heightened concern over body weight extends to other sports as well. In the article “The Inextricable Tie Between Eating Disorders and Endurance Athletes” (Outside Magazine June 2017) Nora Caplan-Bricke describes the pressure on Tyler Hamilton, a Tour de France cyclist to lose a considerable amount of weigh in order to compete more successfully. Even though he was 5’8”, his racing weight of 130 pounds was achieved by hours of training followed by little or no food. Hamilton, like other athletes she describes, felt that a low weight gave him a competitive advantage for a while. Women athletes from marathon runners to professional climbers have also spoken out about an obsession with achieving a pathologically low weight in order to perform better and the eating disorders that inevitably accompany such goals.
But skinny athletes aren’t the only ones facing problems in controlling their eating after retiring from competition. Consider the massively large football players whose weight is an advantage while on the playing field but once they retire can lead to a variety of obesity-related disorders. According to an article “Obesity Could Be the True Killer for Football Players” by Rose Eveleth in Smithsonian.com (January 31, 2013), football players are becoming supersized. She quotes research showing that since l942, the weight of linemen has increased by almost l00 pounds. To be sure massive muscles contribute to the weight and, under the supervision of coaches, the players’ food intake is monitored and exercising regularly is hardly a problem. But when they retire, the players do not automatically (or ever) drastically reduce their calorie intake because they are no longer in training and no longer need to maintain a massive size to be competitive on the football field.
Moreover (and this is not limited to ex- football players), anecdotal reports indicate that it is very hard for players to continue their intense workouts when they are no longer playing /competing professionally. Thus they lose their edge, their stamina, and their ability to endure pain and find it very hard to resume their workouts at a lower level of intensity and skill. Donna reported the same thing. Once she stopped her very long swims, it was hard for her to be content with doing only 30-45 minutes of laps rather than the hours she used to spend in the pool. She told me she mourned her decreasing endurance and speed.
When an individual entering a new sport exhibits the potential to become competitive he or she is coached to attain higher and higher levels of competence and success. Specific training programs often based on scientific analyses of how best to enhance performance are offered, along with nutritional and even psychological counseling. But when the same athlete withdraws from the sport, for whatever reason, there is no compatible oversight to help transition back into a normal life. Although there are nutritionists who specialize in sports nutrition, they by and large do not specialize in “leaving the sport” nutrition. Nor are there personal trainers with similar “retiring from competitive training” specialties or many therapists who know how to deal with the loss of withdrawing from an activity that dominates much of the individual’s life. Gaining weight may be a visible sign that the individual needs help in adapting to an ordinary life but doing so must be emotionally as well as physical difficult. The ex-athlete deserves well-informed support services to be successful at doing so.
1.) “Influence of Retirement on Body Satisfaction and Weight Control Behaviors: Perceptions of Elite Rhythmic Gymnasts,” J of Applied Sports Psychology, Stirling, A., Cruz, L., and Kerr, G., 2012: l24; 129-143