The Study of a Unique Athletic Population: Health Concerns, Interventions, and Prevention in Elite Ballet Dancers
Ballet dancers are a unique population of athletes in that, unlike other sports, their success strictly depends on both physical capabilities and aesthetic factors. While the physical demands of the performing sport are strenuous, ballet dancers are often required to exhibit a thin physique, frequently resulting in weights 10-12% below the ideal. These low weights are commonly achieved by low energy intakes which increase dancers' susceptibility to the development of various health conditions. Research investigating the health of dancers, however, is limited and hampered by methodological limitations. To address these issues, we tested the hypothesis that dancers would report a low habitual energy intake and, therefore, be subject to conditions comprising the Female Athlete Triad, including low energy availability, suboptimal bone density and menstrual irregularities. In addition, we hypothesized that elite female dancers would have lower than expected resting metabolic rate (RMR) based upon their fat-free mass, and thus greater energetic efficiency as a result of chronic energy deficiency. As hypothesized, dancers reported a significantly lower energy intake and exhibited a lower RMR as compared to lean, pair-matched controls. Because treatment of these metabolic abnormalities is challenging, prevention of adverse health outcomes among adolescent pre-professional dancers is key in promoting overall health and optimal performance. Through our subsequent 'formative work', we determined that the current availability of nutrition education offered to both professional and pre-professional dancers is minimal and of questionable quality. Thus, we developed, implemented, and evaluated a DVD-based educational program, entitled "Nutrition for Optimal Performance", aimed at improving health knowledge and behaviors of pre-professional adolescent ballet dancers. Our findings indicate that participants increased their knowledge of basic nutrition principles and self-efficacy for adopting healthier dietary habits, as compared to pre-program and control group scores, and that knowledge gains were sustained at a six-week follow-up assessment. Collectively, these studies provide the field of dance medicine with novel findings related to the characteristics and health conditions of professional ballet dancers, and the effectiveness of a low-resource, disseminable nutrition education program which promotes the health and optimal performance of pre-professional adolescent ballet dancers.