Saturday 17 February 2018

Low body fat jockeys play high stakes game

The cost of winning: maintaining an extremely low weight puts jockeys at risk of low bone density and loss of strength
The cost of winning: maintaining an extremely low weight puts jockeys at risk of low bone density and loss of strength
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

It's the price they pay for the glory of the winner's circle, but at what cost to their health? Irish jockeys are among the most successful in the world, but few of us could maintain their level of discipline in keeping their weight so low.

Dr Adrian McGoldrick, chief medical officer for the Turf Club, said the biggest issue for jockeys is making weight.

In 2006, after a study conducted by the University of Limerick (UL) found that jockeys had dangerously low levels of body fat, the minimum flat-racing weight was increased by 4lbs to a total of eight stone and 4lbs, he told the 'Irish Medical News'.

However, for an Irish jockey competing in the UK, the weight requirement is seven stone 12lbs.

He said increasing the minimum weight in the UK was "on the agenda", but it needed a pan-European approach. Efforts by medical officers in the UK have so far been unsuccessful.

He added: "Very few would weigh in at seven stone 12lbs, but the majority would weigh in at eight stone 2lbs.

"One of the main repercussions of going to extremes to make weight is that many jockeys have reduced bone density from starvation. Most adults will achieve peak bone mass at between ages 22 and 25 years.

"Low bone density increases the risk of suffering a broken bone and it can lead to serious long-term problems as one gets older.

"Obviously, if you're starving yourself during that period, which is when young jockeys are coming through, you'll never get the appropriate amount of calcium, so you'll never attain proper bone density," he pointed out.

The average weight of jockeys has gone up by 30lbs in eight years, but the average riding weight has only risen by up to 7lbs.

Top jockey Ruby Walsh has told how he gets on the scales every morning.

"Normally it's the one thing in the world I look to for good news every day of the week," he said. "Some days it gives me good news and some days it's bad news.

"The lightest I've ever been, as an adult, was 9st 10lb and the heaviest was 10st 10lb."

Dr McGoldrick pointed to the dangers of dehydration and a study showing that most jockeys are chronically dehydrated. In 2007, an Irish study published by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) showed that elite jockeys were usually dehydrated to make weight standards, and that it became a bigger problem during racing.

"Last year we did a pilot study," says Dr McGoldrick, "where we dehydrated 10 jockeys and looked at the effect," he revealed.

"Physical side-effects were noted, such as a loss of strength. The big risk is that their reaction time is delayed. If you're riding a horse at 40 miles per hour, you have to be able to make quick decisions."

Though in the initial study no psychological side-effects were found, he advised that upcoming research would re-examine the issue.

He said a nutritionist and dietician at the Turf Club was available to advise jockeys on the healthiest diets.

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