Quite a lot of us grew up watching Olympic-level gymnastics competitions as they were broadcast on television. Every few years, these high flying, acrobatic individuals would amaze us with their incredible athletic prowess, spinning through the air and landing with nary a stumble.
But did you ever find yourself wondering just why these athletes were so darn small or short? Plenty of young athletes compete in these competitions, but almost all of them are full grown adults? So why is it that they tend to be a foot shorter than their family or coaches when you see them in interviews? Gymnasts are short and they tend to be incredible athletes, but is it the gymnastics that’s causing them to stay short? Could it really be stunting their growth?
Gymnastics And Stunting Your Growth
This got our team thinking that perhaps there’s a correlation between height and gymnastics. Could it be that it’s the sport that makes these athletes exceptionally short? Surprisingly, we discovered that the facts tended to be far more complex than we realized.
The “Myth” Explanation
Plenty of folks have argued that the reason for predominantly short gymnasts is that the athletes are often selected for their diminutive size. When an average spectator sees all of these short, backflipping competitors, they might naturally assume that the sport plays some sort of a role in their growth, instead of their size being the reason they were selected at all. This idea is perpetuated partially by simple physics; Smaller individuals are naturally better suited for flips and twists. So when coaches are looking to take on new trainees that they hope might one day become future Olympians, they naturally look for the most optimal body types.
Although the above argument is logical, there are also a few legitimate reasons to think that rigorous gymnastics may stunt a person’s growth.
What The Experts Think
Most professional gymnasts start their training well before the onset of puberty, often as early as 3 or 4 years of age. The training schedules that many of these young athletes adhere to can be exhausting, especially when combined with attending school, homework, and any other aspects of their adolescent life. This is where researchers think gymnastics might adversely affect a child’s growth.
During puberty (and the lead up to it) the human body releases growth hormones while we sleep. It’s a repeated process that requires normal, consistent rest to function properly. So if a young gymnast is training hard and often only getting 3 to 5 hours of sleep per evening, the deprivation can severely disrupt the body’s abilities for growth and recovery.
This theory has been somewhat contradicted and modified in recent years thanks to a few large studies done in tandem with the International Olympic Committee, or IOC. Specifically, a study in 2000 found that many active gymnasts had shorter standing and sitting heights that “adjusted” once they retired from the sport, meaning that once they stopped training, they gained a few inches.
This is even more complicated by a separate batch of research that has suggested sports with a lot of “hang time” support bone growth, due to pressure being taken off of the joints on such a regular basis.
So What’s The Truth?
At the end of the day, scientists have yet to solve the riddle behind short gymnasts. While we can clearly see that the sport may play a role in keeping some folks shorter, the fact is that when the athletes stop training, their lost height seems to return. This would seem to indicate that the problem is only ever temporary if it even does exist.
So, for the time being, it’s probably still safe to keep your kids active and enjoying the sports they love. The potential for an inch or two lost in height is nothing when compared to lifelong skills and enjoyment.
I’ll wrap things up with a video of Simone Biles doing what she does best!
Other things that might stunt your growth: