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Maybe You Can Be Too Thin: Female Athletes Can't Get Pregnant. What About Rachel Zoe?

We look at athletes as the pinnacle of health. But the same intense physical training that makes these women lean, mean performing machines can keep female athletes’ bodies from functioning well in another capacity: conceiving babies. Experts estimate that 12% of women dealing with infertility are athletes. These issues are most common in long distance runners and professional dancers.  But any woman who exercises excessively could experience reduced fertility for the same reasons. According to the American College of Sports Medicine  “recreational jogging — only 12 to 18 miles a week — can result in poor follicular development, decreased estrogen and progesterone secretion and absent ovulation.”

When I read this piece I immediately thought about how this might affect not just athletes, but all other the women who work themselves literally to the bone to fit into our cultural obsession with thinness.  Most of the women we see in movies and on TV have very little body fat, which comes along, presumably, with reduced calorie diets and intense exercise schedules.

But some seem more emaciated than others. Take Celebrity Stylist and TV personality Rachel Zoe.  Tracie Egan Morrissey wonders on Jezebel whether the stylist’s superskinny physique might be standing in the way of the kids she claims to want. Then there’s E! Hostess/famous fertility struggler Giuliana Rancic. She was challenged on The View a few weeks back for resisting when a doctor suggested 5 or 10 pounds would increase her chances of getting pregnant.

Rancic defended herself, saying insecurity wouldn’t allow her to pack on the pounds, and that exercise was so good for her in so many ways. I can relate on both fronts. So how do we reconcile the idea that a high level of fitness can compromise fertility with everything we know about the benefits of exercise before, during and after pregnancy?

This situation is nothing new. We have always known that fertility is compromised by extreme diet and exercise regimes. When professional athletes delay pregnancy for their careers, they face declining fertility rates, as does every woman who tries to conceive when older. But extreme exercisers compound this with reduced estrogen, menstruation and ovulation issues due to low body fat. These problems can occur at any age. According to the ABC.com piece, almost half of professional dancers (a young group by definition) experience menstrual changes as a result of diet limitations and exercise intensity.What is new in the world at large is just how skinny women are expected to get to be in the public eye. Also new is how much women are now being encouraged to get fit before and between pregnancies in an effort to ward of obesity and its associated health problems.

It’s very confusing to think that something we’re actively encouraged to do could actually have negative consequences for fertility. The athletes themselves often feel shocked and surprised when the bodies they have worked so hard on refuse to cooperate, according to ABC.com’s expose on the situation.

“As an athlete, you have this attitude, ‘I can do anything with my body,’” said tennis player Gigi Fernandez. “That’s how you think. So your biological clock is ticking, but you’re in denial.”

The key, as usual, seems to be moderation. I’m not sure if anyone would really consider 12 miles a week an extreme regime, but it should be noted that most women who run that amount do not have fertility problems. I wouldn’t see this info as a reason to stop an exercise plan that’s otherwise working for you. If you’re having a hard time getting pregnant, and you’re a big exerciser with low body fat, it might make sense to talk to your doctor about it and then decide whether you want to make any changes. To me, the bigger problem seems to be the bigger picture: the idea that our ideal, an extremely thin and fit body, requires women to potentially compromise their ability to conceive children.

photo: Julian Mason/flickr

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