Can children’s growth be affected by intense sports activities? One look at those tiny gymnast athletes will make almost anyone say “yes.” What’s the research on this?
A report five years ago by Danish researchers attempted to shed light on this issue. A total of 184 children who competed in handball, swimming, tennis, and gymnastics was assessed for height, weight, pubertal development and body mass. Although no correlation was found between the hours spent training and growth, several other patterns emerged suggesting other factors. Genetics, size attained before starting the sport, and pubertal status in boys did relate to the athlete’s growth. A few conclusions emerged:
Pre-pubertal and early-puberty children who engaged in moderate exercise (less than 10 hours per week) appeared to be at minimal risk for growth attenuation. Female gymnasts were shorter than girls in other sports. However, it was felt that they were short before choosing the sport, and that they were drawn to gymnastics because it was suitable to their size. Male gymnasts trained significantly more than participants in other sports. Female tennis player had taller parents than girls participating in other sports. This did not apply to male tennis player.
It does appear that there are two schools of thought regarding growth attenuation in sports; one group feels that there is no adverse effect of sports training on growth. Then there are those who feel there is catch-up growth after reducing or stopping training. Finally, there are many additional factors that go into the growth and maturation of the young athlete. These include training intensity and volume, nutritional state, energy expenditure, and psychological or emotional stress.
As a parent you should continue to monitor your child’s growth and maturation along with your child’s doctor. Be aware particularly of those sports where diets are restricted or leanness is important. Consider whether your child may be overtraining. Discuss it with him or her and with the coach if necessary.