What are the benefits of gymnastics?
I would like to organize the benefits and limitations of gymnastics in several categories for ease of understanding: (a) physical, (b) psycho-social, and (c) miscellaneous. I would like to balance my treatment of benefits with appropriate discussion of some of the limitations of gymnastics participation. In this way, I hope to provide an even treatment of gymnastics so that parents, gymnasts, and coaches may better understand what gymnastics can and cannot do.
1. Gymnastics is an anaerobic sport.
Anaerobic means “without oxygen.” Gymnasts tend to have middling levels of aerobic (with oxygen) capacity. However, gymnasts are among the strongest and most flexible of all athletes. Gymnastics performances usually last under 90 seconds. The level of intensity of the activities is too high for long-term performance such as seen in endurance sport long duration events like the marathon.
Most sports are anaerobic in nature. Only the long term endurance sports such as cycling, swimming, and running are largely aerobic. Gymnastics is an “acyclic” sport which means that the same movements are not repeated over and over. There are numerous benefits to cyclic, long-term endurance sports but variety is generally not one of them. One of the major benefits of gymnastics activity is that it subjects the gymnast’s body to a wide variety of stimuli. Repeating the same movement patterns over and over has recently been questioned. And, the generally assumed superiority of aerobic training has been shown to be illusory for many areas of fitness, particularly with regard to weight loss.
2. Gymnasts are among the strongest, pound for pound, of all the Olympic athletes.
Gymnasts are strong in what is termed “relative strength”. Gymnasts demonstrate their strength by being able to move their bodies through a myriad of positions. Their strength is high when expressed relative to their body weight. “Absolute strength” is the term sometimes applied to strength that is expressed by moving some object or opponent. For example, football lineman and shot putters have large absolute strength while gymnasts and martial artists have large relative strength (43). One of the major determinants of absolute strength is physical size. Large people tend to be strong in absolute terms, while smaller people are less strong. Strength is one of the major redeeming characteristics of gymnastics. Gymnasts tend to develop upper body strength more than many other sports.
3. Gymnasts are among the most flexible of all athletes.
Gymnastics emphasizes flexibility due to the need for gymnasts to adopt certain specific positions in order to perform skills. The flexibility demands of gymnastics are probably the most significant and unique aspects of gymnastics that serves to separate gymnastics from most other sports.
It is believed that flexibility can be an effective aid to the reduction of injury, preventing athletes from forcing a limb to an injurious range of motion. Flexibility can also be overdone when a gymnast relies on an increased range of motion in inappropriate positions, particularly the spine. However, the research on gymnastics’ contribution to spine disorders and disc degeneration has been mixed. Care should be taken to ensure that gymnasts develop flexibility in appropriate postures, and that appropriate and planned progressions are used in developing new ranges of motion.
4. Gymnasts are very good at both static and dynamic balance.
Gymnastics has an entire event for women devoted to the concept of balance – the balance beam. The men also have an event that requires extraordinary balance abilities – pommel horse. Of course, handstands are probably the single most recognized balance skills. The still rings in men’s gymnastics is an underrated balance event which requires the gymnast to continuously keep the movable rings under himself. Gymnasts learn to balance on their feet and their hands. Interestingly, gymnasts tend to develop a higher tolerance for imbalance or disturbances to their balance. Gymnasts do not react with as large a “startle response” to sudden imbalances as nongymnasts. This probably means that gymnasts can tolerate larger disturbances to their posture because they have become more familiar with these positions and do not consider them to be such a threat.
5. Gymnasts learn early to fall without injuring themselves.
Because gymnastics is performed on mats, the gymnast learns to fall and roll to spread the forces of impact over a larger area and time. Considerable effort is expended in the early teaching of gymnasts to roll – partly as a skill in itself and partly as a prerequisite to other skills. Learning to fall helps the gymnast avoid injury. Fall-training can help prevent injuries in most sports. Gymnasts acquire a very “cat-like” ability to right themselves and to fall without being hurt.
6. Gymnasts are among the smallest and lightest of athletes.
Gymnastics is somewhat unique in that it provides competitive opportunities for the smallest and lightest athletes. Many sports are clearly biased to prefer athletes who are tall and/or big. Sports that cater to smaller athletes usually involve weight classes which limit the number of small athletes who can participate (i.e., one per team). Smallness is actually beneficial for gymnasts in performing better and avoiding injury.
Being small and light can be taken to extremes that are clearly unhealthy. The issue of eating disorders and the unbridled attempt to reduce body weight at all costs has plagued some gymnasts. However, gymnastics is not alone in this problem. Moreover, gymnastics is neither necessary nor sufficient for the development of eating disorders.
In eating disorders, there are a constellation of factors that contribute to a behavior, but these can be classified into 3 areas: (a) predisposing, (b) enabling, and (c) reinforcing. Predisposing factors might be: low self esteem, neuroticism, narcissism, obsessive/compulsive behavior, depression, and a predominantly external locus of control. These do not meet the criteria for causation, however. Excessive exercise and athletic participation may be enabling factors for the expression of these negative personality traits and not a cause of these behaviors. Daily exposure to the general milieu of athletics, coaches, parents, etc. may provide the reinforcing factors necessary to sustain the negative personality traits.
The distinction between predisposing, enabling, and reinforcing factors versus causative factors is essential to understanding disordered eating and the role that gymnastics may play. Many sports that involve female athletes and exercisers also suffer disordered eating problems. And, disordered eating is prevalent in many sub-groups of females from high school students to medical students. Finally, disordered eating is also becoming more prevalent among male athletes.
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