Food for thought about how to live healthy!

In the Olympics, the minimum age to compete in gymnastics is 16, but if you didn’t know that you would guess that gymnasts like USA’s Shawn Johnson or China’s Deng Linlin were 13 or 14. Most people do, which is why many gymnasts are under suspicion of faking their age. After all, swimmers or soccer players don’t look so young, so why only gymnasts? Fear not, there is a perfectly simple physiological explanation behind the delayed growth and puberty of gymnasts, especially in female gymnasts.

The common trait among gymnasts is that they’re short. While there is a biological reason for stunted growth there’s also an athletic reason: being short gives you an advantage in gymnastics due to the physics involved in the motions. So taller gymnasts usually aren’t able to compete with shorter gymnasts and thus don’t train as long or rigorously. But there are physiologically reasons why gymnasts’ puberty is often delayed:

1) Length of training

Gymnasts often begin training by the time they’re 4 or 5 years old. They’re usually about 7 or 8 year old when coaches and trainers begin to recognize talent in them, and that’s when the prodigies are picked out. They begin to work hard and diligent sometimes 10 years before they’ll compete in an international competition. Whereas other athletes, such as Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong, begin the sport when they’re 11 or 12, while they’re already in the process of puberty.

These gymnasts start at a much younger age and train with the same vigor that other athletes do when they’re the best in their sport. Their training continues through when normal girls begin puberty, around age 11, and beyond. Because their bodies are much more physically fit from all the years of training, it imbalances the hormones and delays the process of adulthood.

2) Physicality

Gymnasts are unbelievably fit when they’re adults, so imagine that kind of fitness in a child. Specifically, they have low body fat. And this doesn’t just pertain to gymnasts, almost all Olympic athletes have low body fat, sometimes in the single digits. And gymnasts have had low body fat since they were 5. Because the stores of fat are so low the body thinks, “I don’t have a lot of fat supply. Maybe it’s best not to grow up right now and wait until I have a little more fat.”

The low levels of fat cause two big reactions in the body that delay puberty:

1) Decreasing levels of gonadotrophin. If you didn’t already infer from the name, gonadotrophin is responsible for the creation of sex hormones. Decreased levels of this delay the normal symptoms of female puberty, like increased breast tissue, darker arm, leg and pubic hair, and menstruation. Most gymnasts eventually undergo puberty by the time they’re 13 or 14, sometimes even 15. Unfortunately, because their puberty is delayed and not allowed to develop correctly, these gymnasts often experience hormonal problems, and sometimes infertility, in the future.

2) Lower levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). Less fat and sugar means less glucose, means less insulin, means no growth. This is the reason gymnasts don’t often grow above 5’3″.  The big growth spurt during puberty is caused by IGF-1. It allows long bones, such as the femur and humorous, and soft muscle tissues to grow into adulthood. Because gymnasts train so rigorously, their muscles are already fit and strong so they really don’t have much need to grow anymore. But the bones are the structures that suffer most. There haven’t been many studies because there aren’t many elderly gymnasts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in 20 or 30 years they discover that gymnasts are more likely to get osteoporosis than regular women.

So what can be done? Honestly, not a lot. Female gymnasts can try oral contraceptives to help boost production of sex hormones, but realistically, they probably won’t want to. Delaying puberty helps these girls keep their bodies short and limber, and that’s better for them when it comes to competition.

If you’re thinking of putting your child into gymnastics and it turns out your child is an Olympic prodigy, consider this parents: 1) Does your child like the sport?? and 2) Is it worth the consequences they may face later in life due to a delayed puberty?

Comments on: "Why Female Olympic Gymnasts Look Like Children" (4)

  1. this really help alot and im 12 and already in the process of puberty. im already a size b36 and maybe thatll be lessened when i start gymnastics

  2. I am a level 5 gymnast. Will my puberty be delayed??

    • I honestly have no idea what that means :P I can tell you though that every girl’s body responds differently, so it’s hard to say what age of onset your puberty will hit. It could be 11, it could be 14. Athletes do tend to have later periods, but that’s because they have lower than normal body fat, which is a good thing! I was a soccer and softball player, and I didn’t get my period until I was 13. And puberty isn’t necessarily when you get your first period. It could be when you start to see breast tenderness, darker arm, leg, and pubic hair, growth spurts, things like that. Don’t be too nervous about that kind of stuff though; the fact that you are a gymnast and that you are healthy and fit is 20 times better than if you were to be overweight and hitting puberty. The girls that have delayed puberty are at the very end of the high fitness spectrum, like Olympic prodigy class girls. Unless you’re the next in line to succeed Gabby Douglas, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. If you don’t get your period by the time you’re 14, then you should see a doctor, but like I said puberty is different for everyone and it’s impossible to predict. Cheers!

  3. thanks for this! I was trying to find why women gymnasts were so small and men were much larger, and this is the only comprehensive look that I found. Everything else was forum debates that were crazy sexist. This is really interesting, and I appreciate the all encompassing look you had – science, emotional, wants, needs. Well written too.

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