| Aug 16, 2016
By Janet R. Wojcik, Ph.D., FACSM
From August 5 through August 22, the ACSM Sports Performance Blog is featuring a special content series in celebration of the achievements of elite athletes participating in international competition. Be sure to follow the blog as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (acsm1954) and share using #ScienceofSport.
Gymnastics is one of the most popular sports among viewers, and it always gets prime-time television coverage. These athletes are amazing from an exercise science standpoint because they are strong, they are fearless, they have amazing balance and they appear to fly like superheroes. People often wonder if all the exercise the gymnasts do contributes to their short stature. The available research has not supported that exercise, particularly resistance exercise, affects height or injury to growth plates. Overall, resistance training and weight-bearing exercises that include jumping and running can be encouraged for youths to help them develop peak bone mass as well as muscle, and gymnasts are a great example of this adaptation. ACSM recommends at least three days per week of muscle and bone strengthening exercise for youths as part of the recommended 60 minutes per day of enjoyable, age-appropriate physical activity.
The gymnasts are small as a result of a natural self-selection for their sport. Smaller bodies are needed to “fly” and are better able to develop the flips and twists they need in their routines. Some interesting data comes from bone density research. Gymnasts have much higher bone densities compared to other youths of the same age and size, particularly in their arms and spine. It is the repetitive mechanical stress of their training that leads to both bone and muscle development. Building peak bone mass in youth may be important when looking down the road at aging-related bone loss and osteoporosis. Gymnasts’ bone density remains high against others in their age group as they go into their 20s when peak bone mass occurs.
Gymnasts, like any other athlete who competes at a reduced body weight, should be monitored for signs of stress fractures and/or Female Athlete Triad 5(osteoporosis, disordered eating, and amenorrhea or lack of menstrual cycles if they have gone through menarche). Their training and competition can lead to injuries just like any other athlete, which would then require appropriate care by medical staff.
Janet R. Wojcik, Ph.D., FACSM is associate professor and program director of exercise science at Winthrop University. She is an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist and Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer.