LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 24, 2019) – As a teenager, Dr. Mary Lloyd Ireland fell in love with sports, including track, basketball, field hockey, and most notably, competitive swimming.
But after experiencing lower back pain, she was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, a defect in the wing-shaped part of the vertebrae. At the time, there was no real plan of action to get her treated, rehabbed and back to an active lifestyle.
“My pediatrician asked me, ‘Why don’t you just quit doing sports?’” she said. “And that was not an acceptable answer to me.”
Since Title IX was enacted in 1972, our culture has come a long way in terms of encouraging girls and women to become involved in sports and other physical activities – a recent Forbes article notes that nationally, almost 43 percent of participants in high school sports are girls, an all-time high.
However, as the number of female athletes increases, so does the need for research specific to the female body. Active girls and women have unique physical issues that cause a higher risk of certain injuries and in turn, a higher dropout rate compared to male athletes. Despite the steady increase in female athletes over the decades, women overall still engage in less physical activity than men across all ages.
Ireland ultimately chose to have a back fusion surgery and resumed all her sports a year later. That experience “lit a fire” within her, she says, empowering her to compete more fiercely and later, become a sports medicine physician.
However, not all women are able to continue physical activity after injuries without a little extra support. To help reduce problems that may arise due to injuries, last year the University of Kentucky Sports Medicine Research Institute (SMRI) launched a new program focused on the female athlete. The Active Women’s Health Initiative (AWHI) is one of four major research initiatives housed at the SMRI, building upon the 25+ years of research that came to UK in 2015 with the arrival of current College of Health Sciences Dean Scott Lephart.
Co-directed by Ireland and UK College of Health Sciences Department of Athletic Training and Clinical Nutrition Assistant Professor Hanna Hoch, the AWHI promotes health for girls and women of all ages by addressing unique issues related to physical activity promotion and injury prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.
“Women’s health is so multi-factorial,” Hoch said. “To have this project focus on women, it allows us to figure out better ways to prevent and treat injuries, engage them in physical activity and help keep them active throughout life. Physical activity can improve your quality of life, but it can also negatively impact it if it leads to injuries – we want to help women become and stay active, but make sure they’re being safe as well.”
The research element of the program aims to answer sex-specific questions on both physical activity promotion and injury prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. Since the AWHI began, Hoch has been building the basis for their future studies through a survey designed to better understand the relationships among physical activity participation, injury history and health-related quality of life among women.
The survey has more than 450 participants so far and preliminary results show a lower physical quality of life for women who participate in less physical activity compared to women who regularly engage in physical activity. Additionally, Ireland would like to initiate studies that focus on activity level of adolescents and younger children to see how physical activity at a young age might affect boys’ and girls’ overall well-being in adulthood.
So far, the outreach element of AWHI has focused on younger girls’ sports teams, though they plan to branch out to older groups as the program grows. The outreach presentations are tailored to the needs of the group – for example, female athletes from Tates Creek Middle School came to campus to run some drills using the cutting-edge tech of the SMRI lab, while young scientists from the STEAM Academy came in to learn more about biomechanics. Their next outreach event will focus on young female tennis athletes, occurring in partnership with the Kentucky Bank Tennis Championships next week. This free event will be open to any female tennis player in grades 6-12; registration is required.
The AWHI team hopes for the initiative to become a central resource for researchers, clinicians, students and community members who are seeking to support active girls and women. As physical activity in the female population continues to rise, so will the need for gender-specific work in this area. Lephart says that this type of research has been a foundation of his team’s work since the 1990s, and it will continue to be a top priority moving forward.
“Women’s health has always been an area we've focused on because there are gender-specific injuries that occur in higher incidence in women than men," he said. “This area still needs attention. The mistake we made for a long time was assuming we could treat all injuries the same regardless of gender – but our research showed that was not the case.”
Lephart also points out that the four major pillars of the SMRI – the AWHI, athletics, active duty/veterans and jockey and equestrian initiatives – do not exist in silos. The programs used the shared resources of the SMRI and often overlap in focus, noting that research being conducted in one initiative is likely to impact not only the others, but all future programs that may be developed.
For Ireland, a former Olympic team doctor who’s been practicing sports medicine at UK since 2008, the prevention angle is just as important as the treatment in her role as a physician.
“It's a win-win for me,” she said. “Because throughout my 30 years of practice, I've been trying to prevent injuries."
And ultimately, says Hoch, the real goal is simple: inspire girls and women not just to become active because it’s good for you, but because you enjoy the process.
“Identify your dreams, and you can do them,” said Hoch, an avid runner. “I tell my daughter, I don’t go to win the races I run in, I go to run in them… it’s just a matter of identifying the resources and then deciding that you’re worth it and taking the time to help yourself and do what you want to do.”
For updates or to donate to the AWHI, visit their website or Facebook page. The AWHI survey is free and is open to women ages 18-75; join the survey here. For more information on outreach through the initiative, contact AWHI Coordinator Dee Dlugonski at email@example.com.