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Young ballerinas who train excessively as they dream of a role in Swan Lake may be compromising their wellbeing and performance, say Massey University nutrition researchers who are launching a study on vitamin D and its role in dancers’ health.
Researchers at Massey’s Albany campus are seeking 100 young ballerinas to take part in a study investigating the impact on dancers’ growth and development of the pressure to be strong yet lean.
They want ballerinas in Auckland aged 13 to 18 to undergo tests of their muscle strength, bone density and iron status, and to be willing to take vitamin D supplements or a placebo to assess the role vitamin D plays in bone, muscle and respiratory health.
Sports Science and Nutrition graduate, Sarah Mitchell, whose Master’s project is dubbed the Sunflower Study, says there has been little research anywhere on the effects on young dancers of long hours of rigorous indoor training combined with dietary restrictions to achieve the desired body shape and size.
Based on other studies, she says young ballet dancers in New Zealand are at risk of vitamin D deficiency because they spend little time outside in the sun, which is the main source. Vitamin D is essential for bone health, as well as muscle strength and a healthy immune system.
“We know a lot of mums of ballet dancers are worried about their daughters but they don’t have the facts,” Ms Mitchell says. “We are aiming to provide some clear information and guidelines on nutrition that will ultimately help dancers with their performance”.
She says female ballerinas in this age bracket are at greater risk of injury and other health effects because of hormonal changes, which influence the development of their bones. Low body fat can cause delayed menstruation, which affects bone health, while low iron can reduce muscle strength and stamina.
Ms Mitchell, based at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, will be carrying out health checks, strength tests and dietary assessments with a team including Principal Investigator and vitamin D expert Dr Pam von Hurst, sports scientist Dr Andrew Foskett, sports physician Dr Mark Fulcher, and consulting Massey nutrition graduate Naomi Davies, a former professional ballet dancer.
Dr von Hurst says the aim of the study is to gain a better picture of the health status of young dancers, and to test whether taking a standard dose of vitamin D has any health or performance benefits. Findings of the study will be relevant to other demanding dance forms as well as gymnasts who need to be extremely fit and strong while adhering to a certain physical aesthetic.
The Sunflower study is one of three on vitamin D this year by Massey’s Vitamin D Research Centre. Other studies are to assess the vitamin D status of 1600 New Zealand pre-schoolers, and another is investigating the effects of vitamin D in treating the skin disorder psoriasis. Dr von Hurst has previously studied vitamin D and its link to the bone health of young New Zealand women of different ethnicities.
For more information go to: www.facebook.com/sunflowerstudy