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Fall 1998

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 98 > Article

Stronger Bones for Girls
By Dawn T. Pick

Gymnastics or genetics? That's the question Rick Lewis is asking about the link between intensive athletic training and high bone density in competitive female gymnasts.

"We want to determine the cause of the higher bone density found in gymnasts as compared to other non-gymnasts," said the UGA professor of food and nutrition. "It may be the sport itself causes this development, or perhaps these young women simply have a high bone density to begin with and are self-selecting into gymnastics."

With a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Lewis will measure the bone density and track the development of 4- to 8-year-old girls before their first years of gymnastics training. As they begin training, Lewis will study their growth, documenting any changes and comparing them to a control group of same-age girls not affiliated with an organized sport. He said he also wants to see if the gymnasts' restricted diets cause any growth problems or eating disorders.

Lewis' research is a follow-up to his earlier study on the impact of gymnastics on bone density in college women and former gymnasts in their 30s and 40s (Research Reporter, Winter 1995). He found that despite a restricted diet and the prevalence of irregular menstrual cycles, these women had higher bone densities than their non-athlete counterparts. This surprising finding contradicted earlier notions that women gymnasts were at higher risk for osteoporosis.

Since then, Lewis has found the same pattern of higher bone density in 8- to 10-year-old gymnasts and will publish these findings in the journal Medicine, Science, Sport, and Exercise this winter.

"This was the last bit of evidence we wanted to see before looking at the very young girls prior to their initiation into any kind of sport or gymnastics," he said.

By looking at children before they start participating in gymnastics and then following them once they initiate their training, Lewis can study the full effect of gymnastics on bone growth and development in young gymnasts.

"Maybe there is something about a higher bone density that is protective for high-level competitive gymnasts. Or maybe gymnastics training in early childhood promotes the gain of bone mass," Lewis said. "This study will help answer those questions."

E-mail Rick Lewis at rlewis@fcs.uga.edu, or access www.fcs.uga.edu/fdn/


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Stronger bones for girls