April 1, 2008

Jockeys in Jebel Ali urge their mounts to the finish line.

A British study has found jockeys working to reach minimum riding weights suffered negative mood swings and their attitudes to eating were significantly more disordered.

The research by academics at Brunel University indicated jockeys at their minimum weights suffered from eating disorders and disturbed moods.

Of the 41 professional jockeys interviewed, six (15%) were found to be at risk in terms of eating patterns. These included regular starvation and self-induced vomiting.

"The results indicate that jockeys who continually undergo periods of rapid weight loss, to ride at a light weight, may experience significant mood disturbance and become more vulnerable to eating disorders," said sport psychology expert Dr Costas Karageorghis, a Reader at Brunel University in west London.

Dr Karageorghis, together with Michael Caulfield, a former long-term chief executive of the Jockeys' Association and Master of Science graduate of Brunel, carried out the ground-breaking psychological research.

"It is clear that governing bodies must address minimum riding weight, as well as provide jockeys with access to support to help them manage the considerable demands of the sport," Dr Karageorghis said.

The jockeys completed mood scale and eating attitude tests on three occasions - at each jockeys' minimal weight (achieved through rapid weight loss), their optimal riding weight (when they were not excessively restricting their weight and felt healthy), and their relaxed weight (when there were no forthcoming light rides or no rides at all).

"These results suggest that jockeys' endeavours to reach the minimum weight limit stipulated by governing bodies are likely to jeopardize their psychological well-being," the researchers said.

The findings, they suggested, showed the need for wider discussions about the appropriateness of current weight regulations in the sport.

The study, reported in the Journal of Sports Sciences, pointed out that weight restrictions had been in place in professional horseracing since the sport's inception in the mid 18th century.

"Historically designed to safeguard the health of the horse, these regulations are now regarded by many commentators as archaic, arbitrary, and potentially dangerous," they said.

"Since 1979, the average weight of apprentice jockeys has increased by approximately 37%, but in that period the minimum weight for a flat jockey has risen by only 6%.

"As a consequence, jockeys are compelled to employ increasingly extreme methods to reach minimum riding weights. Researchers have reported that jockeys suffer constant dehydration, inadequate body fat and bone density, and an increased risk of osteoporosis as a result.

"To reach riding weight, many jockeys endure a rigorous regime to reduce their body weight to an absolute minimum, known as wasting. This might involve a combination of starvation, deliberate dehydration, excessive sauna use, and even self-induced vomiting, known colloquially as flipping. The majority of jockeys battle with their weight at some point in their career."

The researchers said while reaching a required weight is clearly a major challenge for many jockeys, there are few structures in place to assist and support them in their quest.

They said the scientific research community has paid inadequate attention to the psychological and physical effects of weight control among jockeys.

They pointed to a 2002 study which investigated the dietary habits of 20 professional jockeys in New Zealand. It found that energy and carbohydrate intakes were below those recommended for athletes and that the jockeys were deficient in a number of micronutrients.

A total of 44% were osteopenic (a condition involving decreased bone density that can lead to osteoporosis); possibly due to reduced calcium intake and habitual smoking. The New Zealand research also showed 20% of jockeys showed signs of disordered eating, a figure similar to that in the present study.

"This," the Brunel researchers said, "highlights the latent dangers of the culture of severe and repeated weight loss so endemic in professional horseracing, and the potentially detrimental effect it may have on jockeys' psychological well-being.

"This study joins a mounting body of research which suggests that many jockeys may be endangering their physical and psychological health to make and win rides."