FACS Professor Receives Five-Year, $1.2 Million Grant For Gymnastics Research

June 24, 1998

ATHENS, Ga. -- Whether its gymnastics or genetics that most influences the growth and development of top-ranked gymnasts could be answered by a $1.2 million study that's beginning at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia.

"We hope that by studying young children, 4 to 8 years of age, we can determine whether involvement in intensive athletics at a young age leads to potentially negative dietary issues that affect future health," said Dr. Richard Lewis, lead investigator on the study, which is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Lewis and his colleagues at the University of Georgia began researching gymnasts' health in 1993 with a study on the impact of gymnastics on college and women in their 30s and 40s.

"Our original hypothesis was that gymnasts were at a higher risk for eating disorders and amenorhea, which could lead to loss of bone mineral and osteoporosis as they grow older," Lewis said. "Instead, we found that compared with non-gymnasts, the college-age and former gymnasts had a much higher bone mass, despite evidence that a significant percentage of the college-age women restricted their food intake."

Since that original study, which was funded by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Lewis also has compared college gymnasts with their peers and, for the past two years, has followed a dozen girls between the ages of 8 and 12.

"In each study we've seen higher levels of bone mineral density in gymnasts than in non-gymnasts, despite also seeing evidence of restrictive eating patterns and irregular menstrual periods in those who have begun menstruating," Lewis said.

In all of the previous studies, however, the gymnasts had engaged in the sport for several years prior to participating in the research, a fact that made it difficult to gauge the true impact of gymnastics.

"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?"

One theory, which Lewis will explore, is the possibility that gymnasts' bones 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."

In the study, Lewis plans to follow 50 girls, between the ages of 4 and 8 years, during their first two years of gymnastics training. In addition, there will a control group of girls, some of whom are highly active in other sports and others who participate in sports at a recreational level.

"When we conducted our first research in this area, the older women we were studying had started gymnastics training when they were about 12 years old. Most of today's college gymnasts started training when they were 6 years old, and the current trend is for training to begin as young as 4," he said.

An additional area of research will be the psychological effect of gymnastics, in particular whether young gymnasts begin limiting their food intake in order to stay thin and whether they develop attitudes that could place them at risk for eating disorders in future years.

"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, but no large-scale studies of this issue have ever been conducted," Lewis said. "Although adolescent and college gymnasts do score higher on tests that may indicate a higher likelihood for these problems, it's possible that these scores actually mean they have a healthy attention to matters that are important to achieving athletic excellence, such as avoiding excess body fat."

Similarly, although gymnasts do consume fewer calories and calcium than what's generally recommended for girls of their age and size, the same is true of non-gymnasts.

"By assessing the dietary habits and energy expenditure of gymnasts before they begin training and following them for an extended period of time, we should have a much clearer picture of the role gymnastics plays in the diet of girls who excel in this sport as compared with girls who are very active in other sports, who participate in gymnastics at the recreational level, and those who participate in other activities," he said.

University of Georgia

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