06:43pm Thursday 21 November 2019

Teenage girls, their bones, and the effects of vitamin D

The research project, nicknamed the Sunflower Study, is Sports Science and Nutrition student Sarah Mitchell’s Master’s project. “Very little research has been done on the effects of long hours training indoors on the bones of young female dancers and athletes,” she says. “Add in the pressure to achieve a particular physical look or body type, and these girls can be dancing or training on very little food, which could make them susceptible to injury or stress fractures.”
The 12-month study needs 100 Auckland-based teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 18, who are actively involved in ballet, contemporary dance, gymnastics and gym sports, aerobics or cheerleading, and are training or practicing in these sports an average of at least one hour a day, five days a week.

Participants will need to come to Massey University’s Albany campus three times for tests, and will be given vitamin D or a placebo to assess the role vitamin D plays in bone, muscle and respiratory health. They’ll be tested for muscle strength, body composition, vitamin D and iron levels at the start, and again at six and 12 months.

Former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer and Massey nutrition graduate Naomi Davies is a consultant to the study. Her dancing career was cut short with a broken foot that took almost a year to heal.

“When you’re dancing, you don’t think about the long-term risks because you’re fit and active. Often you just work through the pain, and you’re dancing while eating very little food,” she says. “We can give these girls sound nutrition information and help them to focus on foods that will give them sustainable energy. There’s no downside to having this information.”

It is common for male-centred sports to have nutritionists to tell athletes how to eat to build up peak performance and maintain strength and stamina. This information is readily available and used on a daily basis, but the same can’t be said for female-centred sports and arts. In addition, female dancers and athletes are subjected to aesthetic ideals and the desire to be “perfectly slim” that their male counterparts don’t have to live up to.

The lack of information surrounding this particular age group is something nutritionist and former international gymnast and competitive aerobics athlete Olivia Green is keen to change. “This study is invaluable because it will feed into the information cycle for everyone concerned. As well as the girls, coaches and parents can learn the right food that needs to be eaten to get the best performance. To be the best, you’ve got to put in the right fuel. This is essential information for this age group, and best of all – it’s free!”

Ms Mitchell will be carrying out health checks, strength tests and dietary assessments with an experienced team, including Principal Investigator and vitamin D expert Dr Pam von Hurst, sports scientist Dr Andrew Foster, sports physician Dr Mark Fulcher from Unisports Sports Medical Clinic, and Naomi Davies.

“This study is exciting because it will help empower these female dancers and athletes to understand their bodies better, and give them some valuable nutrition information that could help improve their performance and stamina,” Ms Mitchell says.

The Sunflower Study is one of a number of vitamin D studies being conducted this year by Massey University’s Vitamin D Research Centre. Other studies include a Health Research Council-funded study assessing the vitamin D status of 1600 New Zealand pre-schoolers and the effects of vitamin D in treating the skin disorder psoriasis.

For more information go to: www.facebook.com/sunflowerstudy

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