Reduced bone density rife among British jockeys, study finds

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Male jockeys are 12 times more likely to have reduced bone density than the general population, research in Britain reveals.

The lower density is likely to be the result of jockeys employing unhealthy and hazardous strategies in their fight to keep the pounds off in a weight-orientated occupation.

Findings of the research are said to reinforce the need to treat jockeys as elite athletes.

The first results of two major research projects, backed by the Racing Foundation, the British Horseracing Authority and two universities, were released today.

The first phase of an Oxford University study into body composition, led by Julia Newton, revealed the problems of reduced bone density among male jockeys.

It was found that 30% of male flat jockeys had reduced bone density compared to an expected 2.5% of men from the general population of a similar age.

The same data set also show a higher body fat percentage (14%) versus athletes in similar weight-related disciplines such as boxing (8%).

“The results of Julia Newton and her Oxford teams’ initial research are significant but come as no surprise,” says Dr Jerry Hill, who is chief medical adviser for the British Horseracing Authority.

“When athletes compete in a weight-making sport but their schedules make it difficult to access and follow the correct guidance on how to remain fit and healthy then the demands are going to take their toll on the body.

“This research confirms our suspicions and provides us with scientific data to help guide future developments on tackling the issues raised, and gives us extra impetus to continue to work with other industry bodies to support the physical and psychological wellbeing of riders, helping them to have longer, healthier careers and less time off injured.”

Newton described the findings as important. “It is the first step in improving the health of current and future jockeys. The next step is to understand how to keep jockeys riding for longer, with less injury and greater performance. To do this we need more young jockeys to be part of this Oxford study.”

The next stage of the project will be to follow jockeys over a season to understand how body composition and bone density – as well other factors such as entry level fitness – influence time off riding from injury and success in their careers in the longer term.

The final strand of the research involved the collection of self-reported data from over 250 retired jockeys to understand the consequences of a career in horse racing on long-term health, and their view of their career as a jockey. Initial results from this are expected later this year.

In Liverpool, the first results of a John Moores University study of nutrition, weight and well-being have also been reported

The research is being driven to help understand the impact on the physical mental and well-being of riders of a career in racing. The work is being led by PhD researcher Dan Martin, who is also a member of the Professional Jockeys Association Nutrition Team.

Two of the posters that will be used to promote healthier weight management by British jockeys. Photo: British Horseracing Authority
Two of the posters that will be used to promote healthier weight management by British jockeys. Photo: British Horseracing Authority

As part of the project, a cross section of the racing industry, including jockeys and their support network, were interviewed in order to try to understand the current landscape around issues such as eating, nutrition and working schedules.

The results indicated that an industry-wide awareness of archaic weight-making practices and some of the associated health implications existed in British racing.

The findings highlighted a perception that social factors such as support networks and racecourse food provision can significantly impact dietary practices and jockeys’ relationships with food, as well as the focus often being on the horse, rather than the jockey, as an athlete.

The study also found that a lack of nutrition education may inhibit the development of professional athletic tendencies and perpetuate the current issues.

Changing the perception of jockeys from horsemen to elite athletes was now a priority for the British Horseracing Authority and racing industry.

A poster campaign on the importance of nutrition and diet will soon be rolled out in weighing rooms, and a social media thread #JockeyAthleteDiet is being launched.

Now that the data has been collected, the focus of the project will shift towards how the identified issues can be addressed and what educational or practical measures can be put in place to help riders make the most of the current resources available and ensure they are well equipped to deal with the challenges of being an elite athlete in a weight-making sport.

Martin said the findings shed light on why jockeys maintained hazardous weight-management techniques.

“This research highlights some good practice within the jockeys’ support network in assisting with weight management, however it also identifies that much more can still be done by many others.

“Education appears to be key. Education for jockeys is the priority but a more knowledgeable support network may also alleviate some of the current social influences on poor weight management.”

The upcoming poster campaign with the hashtag #JockeyAthleteDiet will seek to educate riders about the health risks of undertaking repeated drastic and harmful weight loss measures and their negative effect on performance.

The British Horseracing Authority’s Jerry Hill said the work at John Moores University confirmed many people’s belief that racing needed to better support jockeys, trainers and racecourses in providing information about the vital importance of good diet and nutrition to improve well-being, reduce injury and improve performance.

“The #JockeyAthleteDiet campaign is one of the first visible outcomes of our nutrition research, which we hope will have a positive impact.

“It is intentionally hard-hitting and focuses on emotive subjects such as so-called ‘flipping’ [vomiting] and dehydration. Our objective is to show our jockeys that ‘there is a better way’, which will be the campaign’s strapline.”

Professional Jockeys Association chief executive Paul Struthers said a lot of progress has been made in the area, but the initial phase of Martin’s PhD research clearly demonstrated that much more still needed to be done.

“His ongoing work will be hugely important in shaping that enhanced education and provision.”

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