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Low energy availability (LEA) describes the disruption in normal physiological function existent when insufficient energy intake is combined with exercise. To conserve energy a range of endocrine adaptations occur, impairing health and athletic performance. The prevalence of LEA has not been fully established especially among recreational exercisers. Determining recreational exercisers at risk of LEA may help to maximize prevention, early diagnosis and treatment. The design of this study was a cross-sectional online survey. One-hundred and nine female recreational exercisers, with a mean age of 23.8 (SD 6.9) years were recruited via gyms and fitness centers throughout NZ. Participants completed an online questionnaire including questions from the LEAF-Q (Low Energy Availability in Females Questionnaire). A total of 45.0% (CI, 35.4%, 54.8%) of participants were classified as “at risk“ of LEA. For every extra hour of exercise per week the odds of being at risk of LEA were 1.13 times greater (CI 1.02, 1.25, p = .016). All participants reporting previous stress fracture injuries (n = 4) were classified as at risk for LEA. Significantly more subjects participating in an individual sport were classified as at risk for LEA (69.6%, CI 24.3%, 54.8%) compared with team sports (34.8%, CI 18.7%, 40.5%) (p = .006). The high prevalence of female recreational exercisers at risk of LEA is of concern, emphasizing the importance of increasing awareness of the issue, and promoting prevention and early detection strategies, so treatment can be implemented before health is severely compromised.
The authors are with the Dept. of Human Nutrition, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.