University of Saskatchewan

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Marta Erlandson (photo by Liam Richards)
August 21, 2006

Grad Student Flips Popular Belief About Gymnastics

Monday, August 21, 2006

(>Second in a weekly Series)

By David Hutton

For The StarPhoenix

 

Conventional wisdom says the fantastic feats of strength and agility that are the hallmark of competitive gymnastics must have a price — shorter adult height and slowed maturation, for instance.

 

Marta Erlandson thinks conventional wisdom is wrong.

 

As a graduate student researcher in the University of Saskatchewan college of kinesiology, she is working to uncover the truth about how the sport affects growth.

 

“It’s a nature-nurture question, really,” says Erlandson. “The big debate is whether gymnasts are shorter because of training or just naturally shorter.”

 

Working under the direction of Prof. Adam Baxter-Jones and analyzing data from a growth and development study in the United Kingdom, Erlandson will soon publish a paper concluding that gymnastics training does not negatively affect the growth and development of female athletes — a result that goes against both popular and academic belief.

 

“The point of the study was not to see whether gymnasts are shorter and later maturing, which has been shown numerous times,” says Erlandson, “but whether gymnastics training itself actually alters the timing and tempo of growth.”

 

Erlandson is also attending to some unfinished business.

 

A former competitive gymnast, she took part in a growth and development study between the ages of eight and 12. The researchers were to follow up with the gymnasts when they turned 18 to see if competing in the sport had beneficial effects over the long-term. But the study was never followed up.

 

A year after she was honoured as the college’s most outstanding graduate, Erlandson decided to tackle the question with her own research supported by the community and

population health research training program at the U of S.

 

Various studies have concluded that gymnastics training leads to reduced growth.

 

Gymnastics places tremendous strain on wrists and forearms, and ankle joints take a pounding from hard landings. Many studies show the high impact nature of gymnastics

stunts growth, presumably by prematurely closing growth plates at the ends of bones.

 

But Erlandson’s study took a novel approach, accounting for menarche — or the onset of menstruation — of the girls who took part in the study, not just their age.

 

“There are all kinds of studies that have looked at gymnasts and shown that at nine to 12 years of age, gymnasts are significantly shorter than other athletes,” she says.

 

“But then you go back and look at their doctor’s measurement from when they were one to three years old and they were also significantly shorter.”

 

The study, which compared timing and tempo of maturation in female gymnasts to swimmers and tennis players, showed no significant difference in the pattern of growth

and development of the gymnasts with their counterparts.

 

“Gymnastic training didn’t compromise adult height,” says Erlandson. “It is more likely that gymnasts and other athletes are selected into participating in the sport most

suited to their body size, which is related to their maturity.”

 

Overall, Erlandson believes gymnastics has received a low score from scientists and the general population on the respectability scale.

 

“Gymnastics is actually very good for children’s development,” she says. “For the general population putting children in gymnastics may have beneficial effects for body

composition later in life. Children may have decreased obesity, stronger functional strength, better body awareness and increased bone density, which is shown to decrease osteoporosis later in life.”

 

Erlandson is her own case in point. She has fused her academic interests with her athletic endeavours, competing as a pole vaulter with the Huskies. How was she able to adapt to the new sport so quickly? Gymnastics, of course.

 

“Gymnastics has helped me in a lot of areas,” she says.  “It gives athletes real core body strength to work from, a great strength-to-body-mass ratio, and a better ability to get

upside down.”

 

*This article is part of a partnership initiative between The StarPhoenix and University of Saskatchewan research communications office to highlight the work of student researchers and showcase the efforts of student writers and photographers.

 

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