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Most Girls Have Normal Growth After Gymnastics

Shorter Athletes Tend to Choose Sport

By Denise Mann
WebMD Medical News

Feb. 22, 2000 (New York) -- Many researchers have suggested that gymnasts may stunt their growth because of their intense exercise regimens. However, a new study published in the February issue of the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that short people may flock to gymnastics. Short stature is considered an advantage in this sport because a shorter person's center of gravity is closer to the ground than that of taller athletes.

A research team led by Ego Seeman, MD, an endocrinologist at the Austin and Repatriation Medical Center in Melbourne, Australia, reports that while active gymnasts did have reduced standing height, sitting height, and leg length compared with nongymnasts, once they retired from gymnastics, they caught up with control subjects in terms of height.

According to the study, adult gymnasts who had been retired for eight years had no deficit in sitting height or leg length and no menstrual dysfunction.

Gymnasts may exercise for as many as four hours per day, and such vigorous exercise may disrupt normal hormone cycles, which can delay puberty and affect height. Numerous studies have shown that the young female athlete is at risk for the "female athlete triad" -- meaning that the development of disordered eating may lead to menstrual dysfunction (amenorrhea) and subsequent premature osteoporosis or bone loss.

But "[a]t least in this study, we find no adverse consequences on final height or menstrual cyclicity and see little justification for shackling the passion and Herculean spirit of the elite athlete," the authors write. "Several authors regard gymnastics as a form of child abuse, even though few, if any, studies confirm any long-term serious [adverse effects] in retired athletes."

In the study, researchers measured sitting height and leg length of 83 active gymnasts and 42 retired gymnasts. They compared the measurements with those of 154 nongymnast control subjects. Twenty-one of 83 gymnasts and 110 control subjects were assessed every 6 months for 2 years.

During the two-year follow-up period, standing height, sitting height, and leg length worsened among the 21 gymnasts. The growth in sitting height, especially, slowed before the age of 13 1/2 but picked up later. But in the one year following retirement, sitting height improved in all 13 of the gymnasts followed that long. Leg length among gymnasts increased at the same rate as it did in control group during the two years of follow-up, the researchers report.

"Short stature in active gymnasts is partly due to selection of individuals with reduced leg length. Reduced sitting height is likely to be acquired but is reversible with cessation of gymnastics," the authors conclude. "A history of gymnastic training does not appear to result in reduced stature or menstrual dysfunction in adulthood."

"[G]ymnastics delays puberty, but puberty may eventually emerge, promoting upper body growth, which may impair gymnastic performance, forcing retirement," Seeman and colleagues speculate.

Gymnastics is not hazardous to your health, says Nancy Marshall, former Olympian and the Portland, Ore.-based director of the USA Gymnastics Athlete Wellness Program. USA Gymnastics is based in Indianapolis.

"In fact, [the sport] can be health enhancing because it is a weight-bearing sport that helps strengthen bones and build muscles," she tells WebMD. "Gymnastics is not something that would stunt growth or have long-term negative effects."

"You have small people attracted to the sport for the same reason that tall people are attracted to basketball -- it's a place where they can excel," she points out. "It's easier to twist and do somersaults because they are closer to the ground and require less rotation."

Like the new report, Marshall says, "most studies conclude that small kids are attracted to gymnastics, and if there is one delay in development, they will usually catch up within five years."


© 2000 Healtheon/WebMD. All rights reserved.



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