Health

We Debunk the Biggest Myth About Olympic Gymnasts' Bodies

You're watching the Olympics, and you notice that the female gymnasts seem to relatively short in stature. That may lead you to ask a couple of questions:

  • Are female gymnasts shorter than other women?
  • Does gymnastics stunt your growth?

The answers may surprise you.

The height of the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches.

But the average height of a female gymnast is 5 feet 1 inch. And 78 percent of "champion-level" gymnasts are within 3 inches above — or below — 5 feet tall, according to Reference. So, yes, female gymnasts are generally shorter than other women.

Consider Olympian Simone Biles: She's 4 feet 8 inches tall, though she towers over the competition when it comes to ability.

Or take the Rio Olympics' "Final Five" of Biles, Aly Raisman (5 feet 2 inches), Gabby Douglas (4 feet 11 inches), Madison Kocian (5 feet 2 inches), and Laurie Hernandez (5 feet even).

Which leads us to the second question:

Does gymnastics stunt your growth?

The short answer to this common myth is no. A well-cited 2013 study, "Role of Intensive Training in the Growth and Maturation of Artistic Gymnasts" published in the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine, came to that conclusion:

"Does intensive gymnastics training attenuate pubertal growth and maturation, specifically rate of growth and timing and tempo of maturation? [...] Allowing for normal variability, gymnastics training does not appear to attenuate pubertal growth and maturation."

Also:

"Adult height or near adult height of female and male artistic gymnasts is not compromised by intensive gymnastics training at a young age or during the pubertal growth spurt.

Gymnastics training does not attenuate growth of upper (sitting height) or lower (legs) body segment lengths."

So why are female gymnasts so short?

Many girls and young women who gravitate to the sport tend to be shorter, according to the study: "Youth who persist in artistic gymnastics are highly select and tend to be shorter." Those who get taller may withdraw themselves from competition.

"Consistent with other sports, artistic gymnastics is very selective. Among level 9 and 10 gymnasts, only 79 of 4,932 women (1.6 percent) and 136 of 1,418 men (9.6 percent) were classified elite by USA Gymnastics in 2009."

It's unclear whether taller gymnasts drop out on their own accord or whether they find themselves excluded from next-level training:

"Evidence suggests that gymnasts as a group, though somewhat shorter than average on entering the sport (4–6 years of age), have heights within the normal range. Those who persist in the sport tend to be shorter, leading to the question of whether elite gymnasts are a self-selected group or are selected by others based on shorter stature."

What about other sports?

If you look at the average height of female swimmers, you'll find that "the women's champions tend to be about 5 inches taller than the average American woman," according to Vox. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a a doctor or scientist who argues that swimming makes you taller.

Basically, it isn't that gymnastics makes women shorter; it's the shorter women who make gymnastics.

[h/t Business Insider]