NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Young female athletes or those with high levels of physical activity seem to be more vulnerable to eating disorders than their less athletic peers, a study suggests.

Researchers found that among 274 female undergraduates, those who were regularly active — whether through sports or by exercising on their own — were more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, strive to remain thin or have symptoms of bulimia.

At greatest risk were students who competed in varsity athletics and had a high level of anxiety over their performance, the researchers report in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Past studies have shown that female athletes tend to have a higher risk of eating disorders than their non-athletic counterparts, though the risk seems to vary according to the sport. Not surprisingly, sports that place a high value on thinness — such as gymnastics, figure skating or distance running — have been particularly linked to body-image concerns and unhealthy weight-control habits.

Similarly, excessive levels of exercise can be a symptom of an eating disorder, or a signal that someone is at risk of developing one.

These latest findings suggest that “sports anxiety” may contribute to eating disorder risk in athletes, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Jill M. Holm-Denoma of the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Among athletes in their study, those who scored high on a standard measure of sports anxiety also had the highest rates of body dissatisfaction and bulimia symptoms.

“As women’s participation in athletics increases, so too does the need for awareness of the link between eating disorders and sports participation among women,” Holm-Denoma said in a journal statement.

“Coaches and athletic departments should consider consulting with clinicians to implement prevention and monitoring programs for the female athletes and independent exercisers at their universities,” she added.

It’s not clear whether sports and physical activity actually cause young women to become dissatisfied with their bodies.

“On one hand,” the researchers write, “women may develop eating disorder symptoms as a result of participating in athletic events and experiencing the associated pressures of competition.”

“Alternatively,” they add, “women who are at a high risk for developing eating disorders may elect to become involved in athletics, perhaps in an effort to manage their weight.”

Future studies should try to weed out the reasons that sports, sports anxiety and eating disorder symptoms are all linked, the researchers conclude.

SOURCE: International Journal of Eating Disorders, August 2008.