Gymnastics’ Effects on the Body: Are They Good or Bad?

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Every avid watcher of the Summer Olympics can’t help but notice a few things about the body types of both male and female gymnasts. They tend to be small in stature, very compact and muscular, and unusually low in body fat. Most of us just assume that these characteristics are just side effects of the intensive, long-term training that Olympic-level gymnasts must go through.

But some have wondered if these effects may actually be negative in the long run, which causes some parents to question whether they should let their young children enter the sport.

Scientists have looked into these phenomena, but so far there are no easy conclusions. Measurements taken by various studies do find without a doubt that gymnasts are shorter and lighter than what is average for their ages. Unlike other athletes, who tend to be heavier than normal (because they’re typically both taller and more muscular), gymnasts are muscular but their body fat is so low that their weight stays on the low end of the spectrum.

Low body weight would not seem like a huge deal in and of itself, but the same studies have also found that gymnasts are not only light but also frail. Hard-training gymnasts’ skeletal systems develop at decreased rates, and muscular maturation tends to far outpace bone maturation. When you see gymnasts performing those deft landings after amazing jumps and flips, they typically soften the landing with their muscles. Were they to use their bones to break the fall, bad things could happen (and mis-executed falls are among the more common causes of gymnastics injuries).

What’s interesting is that the stunted bone growth tends mainly to happen when the gymnasts are training. During off-seasons the bones tend to grow at a rapid rate in an effort to catch up with the rest of the body. In fact, gymnasts who retire from the sport when they’re still in their teens often grow several inches in the years after they quit. Some even eventually reach normal height and body weight.

In the end, there are no easy answers. Some have argued that gymnastics doesn’t stunt growth at all, and that perhaps it’s just easier to succeed in competitive gymnastics if you are naturally short. Whatever the case, the long-term effects of gymnastics are likely to be a net positive, especially in this sedentary age, so parents have no reason to keep kids out of the sport.

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