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A life history perspective on athletes with low energy availability

journal contribution
posted on 02.03.2022, 09:24 by Meghan K Shirley, Daniel LongmanDaniel Longman, Kirsty J Elliott-Sale, Anthony C Hackney, Craig Sale, Eimear Dolan
The energy costs of athletic training can be substantial, and deficits arising from costs unmet by adequate energy intake, leading to a state of low energy availability, may adversely impact athlete health and performance. Life history theory is a branch of evolutionary theory that recognizes that the way the body uses energy—and responds to low energy availability—is an evolved trait. Energy is a finite resource that must be distributed throughout the body to simultaneously fuel all biological processes. When energy availability is low, insufficient energy may be available to equally support all processes. As energy used for one function cannot be used for others, energetic “trade-offs” will arise. Biological processes offering the greatest immediate survival value will be protected, even if this results in energy being diverted away from others, potentially leading to their downregulation. Athletes with low energy availability provide a useful model for anthropologists investigating the biological trade-offs that occur when energy is scarce, while the broader conceptual framework provided by life history theory may be useful to sport and exercise researchers who investigate the influence of low energy availability on athlete health and performance. The goals of this review are: (1) to describe the core tenets of life history theory; (2) consider trade-offs that might occur in athletes with low energy availability in the context of four broad biological areas: reproduction, somatic maintenance, growth, and immunity; and (3) use this evolutionary perspective to consider potential directions for future research.


Fundação de Ampara a Pesquisa do Estado do São Paulo (FAPESP: 2019/05616-6 and 2019/26899-6)



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

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Sports Medicine




AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

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This version of the article has been accepted for publication, after peer review (when applicable) and is subject to Springer Nature’s AM terms of use, but is not the Version of Record and does not reflect post-acceptance improvements, or any corrections. The Version of Record is available online at:

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Dr Danny Longman. Deposit date: 1 March 2022