Exploring the physiological benefits of regular participation - Part one of a three part series
So you’re thinking about signing your kid up for gymnastics? Great! There are many benefits to participating in the sport beyond just being able to ‘flip’ and impress your friends. Follow our informative, research led blog posts during the coming weeks to discover the wide spectrum of developmental areas of which gymnastics can accelerate and nurture during your child’s most important years.
From the perspective of child development, gymnastics is viewed as a key sport as it includes movements involving a great range of locomotion, stabilisation and body control which are crucial in child development (1). Gymnastics can be considered a foundation sport for all physical activity with early participation ensuring development of the most fundamental movement skills, physical and motor abilities, mental abilities, social and emotional abilities and performance skills that carry over into all aspects of life (2).
1. Gymnastics enhances motor skill learning
Performance and movement knowledge are key when considering motor skills and the body’s motor skill abilities (3) with physical movement being one of the most important aspects of human life, allowing children to gain greater control over their living environment (4). Gymnastics is known to be an excellent means of accelerating the foundations of basic motor skills (5), therefore allowing for better mobility and posture (3). The complex motor skills which children learn during their time at gymnastics ensures a heightened ability to generalise their increased motor skill ability and as a consequence predisposes them for enhanced learning of skills throughout their childhood (3). A child who doesn’t gain age appropriate expertise in motor skills could face serious behavioral and developmental disorders due to being ignored in the games and sports they’re partaking in as a result of their limited motor skill abilities (4).
2. Gymnasts have greater bone growth and density
It has been found that non-elite gymnastics participation is associated with greater upper limb bone mass (6). A 2010 study suggests young recreational and pre-competitive gymnasts demonstrate on average 23% greater bone strength at the wrist in comparison to children partaking in other recreational sports (7). This has also found to be true when researching lumbar spine bone mass with heightened bone accrual rates being demonstrated in prepubertal, recreational-level gymnasts (8). These findings are a development on previous research which suggests that exclusively competitive gymnasts have greater bone mass and density than non-gymnasts, therefore displaying an increased relatability and importance to the general population as recreational gymnastics skills are attainable by most children, and as such do not require such high levels of training (9).
There are also clear advantages on continuing mechanical loading through gymnastics activity during your child’s life with pubertal children demonstrating enhanced bone development through these years, predisposing your child to yielding larger and stronger bones (10). Interestingly, this increase in bone density and mass are continued and sustained throughout adult life with studies demonstrating increased bone mineral density after a 34 year retirement from gymnastics, establishing the longevity of childhood gymnastics participation benefits (11); furthermore, the results from a six year study discovered that when recreational female gymnasts decline their gymnastics participation they retain stronger bones and better functional capacity than their less active counterparts, supporting the lifelong benefits of gymnastics, perhaps leading to decreased risk of falling or fall-related fragility fractures by the preservation of bone mass (12).
In terms of the amount of non-competitive gymnastics practice required to achieve these skeletal benefits, a 2013 study established that significant beneficial changes in upper limb musculoskeletal were observed after just six months of non-competitive gymnastics training with the most change seen when more than one class a week was attended (13).
3. Gymnastics makes kids strong
Strength is a very important characteristic for children to develop, with it underpinning many general and sport specific skills (14). In the most basic form, gymnastics is known to positively affect the development of strength (15) with the results from a study on seven year olds establishing a positive increase in explosive strength and muscular endurance as a result of a ten week gymnastics intervention (1). Gymnastics training in early age is seen to develop strength indexes when compared to non-athletes and even athletes of other sports (17). It has been observed that gymnasts over eleven years of age display increased levels of strength when compared to untrained boys of the same age (17). Further research suggests that recreational gymnastics participation is associated with increased upper limb strength and muscle function (6) with gymnasts tending to develop upper body strength more than many other sports (16).
4. Balance is increased through gymnastics participation
Gymnastics participation develops balance (1), which together with other motor skills plays an important role in the successful execution of sports skills (15). Postural control (balance), is something which can be considered as essential when performing most activities, and it is resultant of an interaction between a child’s sensory information and their motor action (18). Postural control is defined statically as the ability to maintain a base of support with minimal movement, and dynamically as the ability to perform a task while maintaining a stable position (19). This control is gained over the first few years of life with developmental postural control changes being suggested to be a result of how children integrate their sensory information into motor action allowing them to achieve or maintain a desired postural orientation (18).
Gymnastics during the younger years has been demonstrated to improve postural control when measured using a still upright stance on a force plate, this is related to the use of the available sensory cues which are developed in gymnastics allowing your child body dynamic estimation and improvement of their own postural control (18). Research signifies that crucial time to nurture these training effects is between the ages of five and seven (18), therefore suggesting that enrolment in gymnastics during these years is optimum when considering their development of postural control.
There we have just a few of the many physiological benefits developed through recreational gymnastics participation. Throughout the research discussed it can be seen that these particular benefits are observed as a result of participation in low level gymnastics classes with many important and meaningful musculoskeletal developments demonstrated as a result of as little as 10 weeks of participation in the sport; overall this signifies the positive impact that even a small amount of exposure to regular gymnastics participation can have on your child’s development.
Make sure to keep an eye out for the next blog post which will look into some of the psychological benefits of your child’s participation in regular gymnastics classes.
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