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Training Won't Stunt Your Growth

Smaller women tend to gravitate towards certain sports, study says

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 6, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The Olympic-caliber female figure skaters who'll dazzle the crowd with double axels and triple toe loops at the Salt Lake Ice Center next week will most likely be petite.

However, their small stature isn't necessarily the result of the intense training and competition they've endured to chase their dreams of a gold medal. Instead, says a new report, it's more likely their naturally small stature led them to their specific sport.

The study, which appears in the February issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, challenges the notion that intense physical training among young female athletes can reduce their mature adult stature.

An expert on the effect of sports training on growth and development says while athletes may experience temporarily delayed growth, it will most likely normalize after they stop training, and there is no clear evidence it will permanently reduce their mature stature.

In the 1980s, Dr. Nicola Maffulli came across reports suggesting gymnastics was inhibiting normal growth in girls. He decided to look at the parents of the young athletes to determine whether the children were reaching the target height expected of them, based on their parents' heights.

Maffulli discovered that, in fact, the children were reaching their expected heights. With kinesiologist Adam Baxter-Jones, he reviewed the existing medical literature on intensive training and development, and found there was little evidence suggesting childhood growth was stunted by such athletic activity.

Instead, Maffulli suspects athletes tend to gravitate towards sports where their individual size is an asset. For example, a petite young woman might choose gymnastics, ballet or figure skating, while taller women tend to choose basketball, volleyball or rowing, he says.

Alternatively, the study suggests, coaches or sports systems may seek out athletes with certain physical attributes.

"You do not become tall because you play basketball or volleyball," says Maffulli, a professor of trauma and orthopedic surgery at the Keele University School of Medicine in Staffordshire, England. "You're tall to start with."

In children who choose gymnastics or ballet, he adds, athletes are more likely to have petite parents.

In fact, the researchers note, female athletes tend to have body masses that meet or exceed the average. The difference, they point out, is that they also tend to have a lower percentage of body fat.

However, Maffulli points out other pressures can have a negative impact on a young athlete's self-image and health, including eating disorders.

"There is little doubt that the cosmetic and esthetic appearance which is required in some sports does exert a negative effect," says Maffulli. "[Athletes] have to have an idealized physique to be successful."

Several sports organizations are trying to tackle these issues, such as setting age levels for certain competitive levels.

"Unfortunately, the pressure that these girls are under is enormous," he says. "Boys are traditionally under less pressure. But some research has shown that there is greater prevalence than expected of eating disorders, for example, in boys…Even boys feel that they have to look good."

Dennis Caine, a professor of physical education, health and recreation at the Western Washington University, agrees the effects of intensive training on growth and maturation are not fully understood. As well, he says, it's likely that short, late-maturing girls tend to gravitate towards sports such as gymnastics, where a petite stature can enhance their performance.

"There is some evidence to indicate that growth may be affected in some young athletes," says Caine.

"Most likely, the impact is temporary," he says, adding that studies have suggested that women make up for that reduced growth once they scale back their training or retire.

"But there's no cause-and-effect relationship between gymnastics training and inadequate growth in females," says Caine.

However, he notes the medical literature on the impact of intensive training is extensive, and this latest report did not cite several references that indicate growth is affected.

The researchers were surprised to find children who train intensively and who are elite athletes are not injured as often as anecdotal reports suggest. Maffulli and his colleagues are currently working on a more detailed study of that phenomenon.

What To Do

The American Academy of Pediatrics has published this policy statement on intensive training in young athletes. This article on FindArticles looks at the different views on this issue.

Can't wait for the Olympics to start? Get your fix at the Salt Lake City Olympics official Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Nicola Maffulli, M.D., Ph.D., professor, Trauma and Orthopedic Surgery, Keele University School of Medicine, Staffordshire, England; Dennis Caine, Ph.D., professor, Department of Physical Education, Health and Recreation, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wash.; February 2002 British Journal of Sports Medicine
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