Over the years, gymnastics has become a sport for little women. No one knows why that is, though, or even whether it's good or bad. But University of Georgia scientists hope a new study will provide some answers.
The scientists will study children 4 to 8 years old. They hope to find how intensive athletics at a young age affects future health, said Rick Lewis, a foods and nutrition researcher with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Lewis will lead the $1.2 million study, which is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
He and his UGA colleagues began researching gymnasts' health in 1993. They studied the sport's impact on women of college age and those in their 30s and 40s.
They thought they'd find that gymnasts' higher risk for eating disorders and amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) could lead to a loss of bone mineral and to osteoporosis as the women grow older.
"Instead, we found they had a much higher bone mass than nongymnasts," Lewis said. That was true even though many of the college-age women restricted their food intake.
Since that study, Lewis has compared college gymnasts with their peers. And for the past two years, he has researched a dozen girls between 8 and 12 years old.
But in all the studies so far, the subjects had been gymnasts for many years already. That made it hard to gauge the sport's true impact.
In the first studies, "the older women had started gymnastics training at about 12 years old," Lewis said. "Most of today's college gymnasts started training when they were 6. And the trend is to start as young as 4."
Lewis plans to study 50 girls between 4 and 8 years old during their first two years of gymnastics training. A control group will include some girls highly active in other sports and others involved only in recreational sports.
"Over the years, gymnasts who compete in the Olympics have become shorter and shorter," Lewis said. "Is that a result of restrictive eating patterns and the impact of high-intensity gymnastics on bone development? Or were these young women already genetically programmed to have smaller builds and denser bones?"
The study will look at whether gymnasts' bones may develop differently as a result of their activity.
"It may be that their bodies trade off bone length for bone density," Lewis said. "By spending two years following children just beginning gymnastics, we can assess whether gymnastics blunts growth velocity and significantly alters growth factors."
Lewis will also study the sport's psychological effect. In trimming their food intake to stay thin, do young gymnasts develop attitudes that could place them at risk for eating disorders later?
"The common assumption is that young women who engage in activities such as gymnastics and ballet are at especially high risk for developing eating disorders," Lewis said. "But no large-scale studies of this issue have been conducted."
Young gymnasts do score higher on tests that indicate a higher risk of these problems.
"But these scores may actually mean they have a healthy attention to matters important to achieving athletic excellence," Lewis said, "such as avoiding excess body fat."
Young gymnasts eat fewer calories and calcium than is recommended for girls their age and size. But so do girls who aren't gymnasts.
Lewis said it's critical to study gymnasts' dietary habits and energy expenditure before they begin training. And it's vital to follow them over time and compare them with girls with other and less intensive sports roles.
By doing that, he said, "we should have a much clearer picture of the role gymnastics plays in the diet of girls who excel in this sport."
(Denise Horton is a contracted writer for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Office of Global Programs.)