Does Gymnastics Stunt Growth?

If you’ve been watching elite gymnastics at the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics recently you might be wondering why all the athletes seem to be so small. More importantly you probably want to know if you or your child participates in gymnastics if their growth will be stunted. The problem with this question is that there is no definite yes or no answer for you. It is likely that the small stature of competitive gymnasts comes down to a combination of multiple factors.

Firstly, it is likely that gymnasts are small because of the nature of the sport. Gymnastics requires athletes to fling themselves in between bars, flip on a 4 inch beam and manipulate their bodies into positions that other athletes would only dream of. Due to the nature of the sport it is possible that gymnastics simply attracts short people, just as a sport like basketball attracts tall players. Would it be fair to say that basketball increases the growth of an athlete? The lack of taller athletes can also be explained by children who grow at an earlier age than others and drop out of gymnastics as it gets too difficult. 

Another possible explanation is that a gymnast’s diet may keep them small and light weight. This generally occurs as athletes don’t realise they need to adjust their eating habits, and actually eat more, as their training increases resulting in insufficient levels of calories, calcium, and Vitamin D that are necessary for bone growth. 

There are some arguments that link high intensity gymnastics training during puberty with delayed growth. The theory is that young people undertaking such high levels of gymnastics training are likely to develop overuse injuries and are at risk of causing stress to growing bones and growth plates. A study published in 2004 showed that intense gymnastics training can impact the musculoskeletal growth and maturation that is supposed to occur during puberty, but, research conducted by Malina et al, investigating the ‘Role of Intensive Training in the Growth and Maturation of Artistic Gymnasts’, found that gymnastics does not appear to have any effect on either upper or lower body growth. In terms of delayed onset of menstruation, research shows that on average gymnasts experience their first period much later than other adolescents. 

As you can see, even scientists don’t have an answer for you. The good news is that it has been proven that any possible effects gymnastics has on growth or maturation are eventually reversed once an athlete stops gymnastics and transitions into adulthood. It is also likely that any possible growth effects on gymnasts are less likely to occur in recreational athletes than high level competitive gymnasts that train more than 25 hours a week. 

It is important to remember that gymnastics isn’t just for short people and even some of the top competitors in the world aren’t short. Our very own Australian gymnast Georgia-Rose Brown is the tallest gymnast in the world at 5’8”!