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NIDA Study Finds High School Program Yields Health Benefits for Female Athletes

Armen Hareyan's picture

ATHENA Reduces Substance Abuse, Encourages Healthy Behaviors.

New research that focuses on a health promotion program supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health, shows the program decreased the abuse of stimulant medications and other substances believed to enhance body image or performance among female high school athletes, while encouraging healthy behaviors. The study, led by Dr. Diane Elliot and Dr. Linn Goldberg at Oregon Health & Science University, is published in the November issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The curriculum, named ATHENA (Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Alternatives), is sport-team centered and taught by coaches and student leaders during 8 weekly 45-minute sessions that are incorporated into team practice activities. Topics include healthy nutrition, effective exercise training, the effects of drug abuse and other harmful behaviors on sport performance, media images of women, and depression prevention.

"It is important to develop effective prevention programs for adolescents, because this is a time when areas of the brain critical to impulse control, decision-making, and judgment undergo dramatic changes and adolescents are asserting their independence," says NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "This study shows that early promotion of healthy lifestyles can help deter disordered eating, substance abuse, and other detrimental behaviors."

The study enrolled 928 students from 40 participating sport teams in 18 public high schools in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington State. For each team that elected to participate, the scientists recruited a similar team from another school that acted as a control group. Members of the control teams were offered preprinted material about eating disorders, drug abuse, and sports nutrition.

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Students filled out questionnaires before and after their sport season. An analysis of pre- to post-season data indicates that information transmitted to the teens via the ATHENA program helped reduce abuse of diet pills and other substances, such as amphetamines, anabolic steroids, and muscle-building supplements. For example, student athletes who participated in the program were almost three times less likely than the control students to start using diet pills, and about one and one-half times less likely to use amphetamines, anabolic steroids, and muscle-building supplements. Students who participated in the program also were two and one-half times less likely than their control counterparts to become sexually active. They also were more likely to use seatbelts, had positive changes in eating and strength-training behaviors, and experienced fewer injuries.

"Responses to survey questions also showed that student athletes who participated in the ATHENA program also were less likely to consider future use of diet pills, tobacco, self-induced vomiting to lose weight, and the nutritional supplement creatine," says Dr. Elliot. "ATHENA participants were better able to prevent depression and less affected by advertisements and social pressure. Those abilities may help these young female athletes make healthier choices in the future."

"Disordered eating habits and the abuse of body-shaping and muscle-building agents, especially anabolic steroids, among young female athletes is of increasing concern," notes Dr. Volkow. "Programs that promote healthy alternatives can act to deter drug abuse and other potentially harmful actions among this vulnerable population."

An adolescent male athlete program entitled ATLAS (Athletes Training & Learning to Avoid Steroids), funded by NIDA and designed by the lead researchers of ATHENA, found significant benefits using a similar peer-led, sport team-centered intervention, with less alcohol and illicit drug use, reduced drinking and driving, and improved nutrition behavior one year after participating in the program.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports more than 85 percent of the world