On average, male and female gymnasts are of short stature. This small stature is a great advantage in gymnastics because it gives a gymnast a lower center of gravity, which is especially important for balance skills. Several studies have addressed the issue of growth in gymnasts, trying to determine whether the sport actually delays growth in its athletes. Three key factors help explain this perceived growth delay.
Genetic predisposition may help explain the overwhelming number of short male and female gymnasts. In other words, the sport attracts athletes who are genetically of small stature. In looking at data on growth and gymnastics, an October 2001 article in the “Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine” found three historical studies that indicated female gymnasts are short even before they begin training. Additionally, parents of nationally selected gymnasts are usually of a smaller stature. An October 2000 article in the “Journal of Pediatrics” concluded that genetic bias -- not training or diet -- led to the short stature of male gymnasts.
Some evidence shows a link between gymnastics and delayed growth in females. On average, younger female gymnasts ages 7 to 10 fall into the 48th percentile for height and weight, putting them in the middle of the pack, compared to their peers. From ages 11 to 14, growth slows for many female gymnasts, and the average weight and height drops to the 20th percentile, cites data from an August 2000 article in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” After gymnasts retire from the sport, they make up that growth deficit over a period of years.
Diet is another factor that affects growth in gymnasts. Because being lighter and shorter is an advantage in gymnastics, some female gymnasts restrict their diets in an effort to stay small. In some cases, gymnasts don’t purposely restrict their diets, but they do not properly adjust their diets to match the high metabolic demand of the sport. To balance the hours at the gym, gymnasts need extra calories and nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D for bone health and growth.
Genetic bias, intense training in the sport, diet or a combination of three all help explain the delay in growth often seen in female gymnasts. However, research has yet to demonstrate a direct cause-effect relationship between gymnastics training and inadequate growth in female gymnasts. Other factors, such as the stress of training and competing, may also contribute to the growth delay. Gymnastics is less likely to affect growth in gymnasts who only participate in the sport recreationally.