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" (8)

  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 😛 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.

  4. kimberley blake aka kimberley queenan said:

    Hi i am 25 years old now and i was in gymnastics sence i was 5 years old by 7 i was level 7 waiting level 8 due to my age of being to young i trained so much and got drilled into the floor vualt beam and bars 6 days a week for 5 hours or more a day . i loved it its all i knew its what was my life and felt i could reach the stars if i wanted too . i knew i was olympic material and had that dream embeded in my head . sadly my gymnatics training center closed down when i was 8 and had to wait out of gymnastics for a year then whip my self back into shape . the problem i had was the small town im from could not teach me more than what i had i was level 9 and couldnt afford much in a family of 9 . so i never got to fullfill my dream the one dream i had after working so hard living a rough life dealing with epolepsy from walking early and hitting concreate gymnastics was my get away my own world in which i could control. so i loved it but now being grown i have aches and pains fertility problems i too didnt start my period till i was 15 years old i also am 5/2 tall and have fibromyalgia . being drilled into the ground for so long had impact on my body . also i weigh 114 . i also notice that i have to keep my body fit and not have body fat on it cause it bothers me i am so use to conditioning and staying fit trying to do everything to perfection because all of us gymnast know a perfect 10 lies right behind a perfect retine . i am wondering if anyone else has any of the same issues as me and how did u over come them .

    • Honestly, I think the best thing for you is to go to a primary care physician. I know that a lot of people feel uncomfortable about going to doctors, but it sounds like you have a lot of health problems in addition to your physical training. Epilepsy, fibromyalgia, and late puberty are all conditions that are best taken care of by a professional. And I know you are determined to be a perfect gymnast, but at the same time you have to listen to your body. If doing gymnastics is doing more harm then good, then maybe you should consider finding a different sport to play. Your health should always come first.

  5. First of all, thanks for the very informative post! I have a brief question I’d be interested in your thoughts on.

    Beginning when I was about 15 and a half, I got very thin from doing sports for about a year. I lost my period for around 7 or 8 months. I wonder if my body missed out on any puberty as a result of this. I think I was done growing taller already (had first period at 11 and stopped growing in height at 14), but I wonder if I missed out on breast growth.

    Do you think that once I regained the weight, my body would have gone through any changes I missed out on due to the weight loss? I’m a little confused on whether puberty gets delayed or stops completely if you’re amenorrheic.

    Thanks for reading!

    • I want to stress that I’m not a doctor, so I can only speculate this. But I think that the drastic change in exercise either stalled or shortened your puberty. Ages 12-16 is an incredibly important time in a young girl’s development, so a big change like a change in diet, environment, or exercise can alter body chemistry. Your body will finish going through puberty one way or another, but depending on how long the process is stalled your body may finish puberty sooner than it wanted. And that can lead to other problems later in life. Talk your PCP about it. Thanks for commenting!

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