Date of Award

August 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Exercise Science


Kevin S. Heffernan

Subject Categories

Medicine and Health Sciences


The number of women participating in collegiate athletics has increased since Title IX was passed, which supports equal access to men and women in government-funded programs. Female student athletes are under increased pressure to maintain fitness while meeting academic standards, thus resulting in mental health concerns (i.e., depression and anxiety) and related poor lifestyle habits (i.e. problematic alcohol drinking and disturbed sleep quality). While high fitness imparts cardiovascular health benefits, such mental health concerns and poor lifestyle habits negatively impact cardiovascular health. Cardiovascular health is particularly concerning for women, as cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in this group and recent data suggest increased rates of cardiovascular health-related hospitalizations in young women. PURPOSE: To compare vascular health, fitness, mental health and lifestyle habits of collegiate varsity athletes, club sport athletes and recreationally active (RA) women. METHODS: Eight Division 1 varsity athletes ( age 20±1 yrs, BMI 24.1±1.6 kg/m2) and 12 club sport athletes (age 20±2 yrs, BMI 24.5±3.2 kg/m2), were matched to 20 RA women (age 20±2 yrs, BMI 24.3±3.0 kg/m2) based on age and height. Cardiovascular health assessment included measures of pulse pressure (PP) and carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity (PWV). Fitness was broadly defined as cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, flexibility and balance assessed using a YMCA Step Test and estimated VO2max, hand grip strength, sit-and-reach and balancing on a firm and foam surface over a force platform, respectively. Generally accepted and validated questionnaires were used to subjectively assess depression, anxiety, alcohol consumption behaviors, sleep quality and physical activity. Physical activity and sleep were further objectively assessed using accelerometry. RESULTS: Varsity athletes had higher PP (p<0.05) but similar aortic stiffness (p>0.05) compared to club and RA. Varsity athletes had greater estimated VO2max and average strength compared to RA (p<0.05). Varsity athletes spent less time in sedentary and greater time in vigorous activity assessed through the analysis of accelerometer data compared to both the club and RA women (p<0.05). There were no differences in anxiety or depression scores or lifestyle habits between the varsity athletes and RA. CONCLUSION: Despite having greater levels of fitness, more optimal physical activity habits and comparable mental health as female club sport athletes or non-athletes, female collegiate varsity athletes had higher pulse pressure. Given that the higher PP occurred concomitant with similar aortic stiffness and mean arterial pressure, we suggest that increased PP in this setting is a reflection of an exercise adaption related to cardiac structure and function.


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