BODY WEIGHT AND RHYTHMIC GYMNASTICS: DO GYMNASTS NEED TO BE SKINNY?
The relationship between body weight in gymnastics raises questions on young athletes and enthusiasts. Many people wonder why all the world's top gymnasts are so skinny if being slim is some kind of unspoken requirement and whatnot. The high number of eating disorders in the community only makes the confusion more complicated. Sports in which body weight is an important factor for success like figure skating, diving, artistic and rhythmic gymnastics are considered high risk, in regards to food intake disorders. According to Sundgot-Borgen and Torstveit, authors of the scientific article Eating disorders in the world of sport: the experiences of rhythmic gymnasts, about 42% of women athletes who participate in aesthetic sports present clinical symptoms of eating disorders since low body weight is linked to aesthetics and performance.
Is weight actually important?
Weight is important in rhythmic for a number of reasons. Excessive body fat can make an athlete more prone to injuries. In a sport where we are frequently standing on our toes, putting extra pressure on such a small area of our body can be damaging. Leaps tend to be lower for heavier gymnasts and it may passively affect the artistry scores, and sometimes even some technical deduction due to the lines we create with our body, they tend to look less elongated in more compact gymnasts. We can say that a slimmer gymnast gets an advantage in some aspects of the sport that can help them achieve higher scores. But what does this mean? Does it mean that you can't be good at gymnastics if you are not skinny? Does it mean we need to lose weight or follow strict diets if we are planning to commit to the sport? The answer to all of these questions is absolutely not.
Some people feel discouraged to even attempt to do things like go to a trial for a better club, try to go competitive, make it into a national team, or simply take classes because they love the sport; just because they think they need to be a certain size or have certain attributes. We are here to tell you that it's not true. In fact, hard and constant work has always been, and always will be the only recipe for self-improvement, both in life and in rhythmic.
There is a dilemma in many athlete's heads. Nobody wants to suffer from an eating disorder, and they want to do anything to prevent it. At the same time, they feel they need to stay as slim as possible to do well in their sport, or in some cases, not feel like an outsider in their own club.
The demand for a certain body composition in rhythmic can lead to eating disorders if not carefully prevented by coaches, doctors, parents and athletes. According to a Greek study by the University of Peloponnese, athleticism and especially champion athleticism has in common with food intake disorders not only behavioural patterns, such as a strict diet program and excessive physical exercise, but also personality traits, such as perfectionism, competitiveness, performance anxiety and intense preoccupation with body image. Within the frame of a higher physical self-consciousness, weight and aesthetics blend in a dead-end way with health and performance. The competitive nature of sports and the strong desire for excellence leads to adopting traits of people with Eating Disorders. Therefore, sportsmen and sportswomen compared to the general public, face a bigger danger to develop them.
A high-risk group for developing ED symptoms is female athletes of rhythmic gymnastics compared to female athletes in other aesthetic sports. At a very young age, they show a keen interest in their body, undergo pressure from coaches, parents, judges and co-gymnasts and display behaviours and personality traits consistent with anorexic people such as perfectionism, low self-confidence and self-esteem and stress.
The increased number of subclinical cases of food intake disorders among sportspeople has lead to the introduction of the term “anorexia athletica”, which is indicative of the correlation between sports and anorexia nervosa. There's also references to the “female athlete triad syndrome” which is defined by three distinct but often interdependent conditions and involve disordered eating, amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) and osteoporosis. Excessive training combined with exhaustive diets and the stress experienced by elite sportswomen, many times result in hormone disorders with serious health consequences.
Eating Disorder Warning Signs in Elite Athletes
1) Eating too little, exercising or training too hard
2) Increased focus on weight, shape, size and appearance
3) Underweight or notable weight loss
4) Abnormal sex hormone cycles
5) Stress fractures and overuse injuries
Nutrition for Gymnasts
Most gymnasts are quite young and still growing, and most of them spend a decent few hours in the gym. James Walsh, nutritional advisor, says "Most gymnasts that are somewhat concerned about their body image, are probably already undereating". It all depends on the age, size, training hours and metabolism of the person, but as a general guideline a teen should be consuming around 2,200 calories.
The truth is that generally, one's body will know when they are supposed to eat. It all comes down to what you are eating, rather than how much. It's all about eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods until we are satisfied, without over-indulging.
Protein: For strength and muscle maintenance a gymnast would need approximately 50g per day (one gram per kg of body weight).
Carbohydrates: For intense training sessions, especially for practising routines over and over, an athlete needs a considerable amount of ready to consume energy, which comes from carbs. A healthy mixture of simple and complex carbs is necessary -simple carbs are found in sugary, sweet flavoured food and complex carbs are found in grains, beans potatoes, and starchy food.-. Try to stick with the minimally processed foods: Fruit instead of sweets, honey or natural syrups rather than sugar, porridge rather than pastries, and so on. 300g of carbs is roughly needed depending on the gymnasts and their habits.
Fat: Gymnast will burn fat in their everyday life, and they will use it as a source of energy during low-intensity exercises such as flexibility or balance exercises. Staying away from saturated fats (butter, cheese, fatty meats, etc...) is always recommended. Instead eating natural healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts (or nut butters) or dark chocolate. 50 to 60g of fat is a good general guideline.
*The quantities of kcals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats are an estimate of what a female teen should be eating while training about 24 hours a week. If you are training 10 hours a week, for instance, eating fewer fats and carbohydrates is recommended. For specific nutrition guidelines, you should always talk to a doctor or dietician.
The genetics factor
A study published by Journal of Sports Sciences carried out by Cristina Tringali, Ilaria Brivio, Beatrice Stucchi, Ilaria Silvestri, Raffaele Scurati, Giovanni Michielon, Giampietro Alberti and Bruno Venerando on the Prevalence of a characteristic gene profile in high-level rhythmic gymnasts shows that high-level physical performance in rhythmic gymnastics is influenced by numerous skills and anthropometric factors (genetic characteristics that we inherit since birth that we have no control over).
High-level rhythmic gymnasts recruited for the study were characterised by a very low body mass (mean BMI percentile: 11.6 ± 9.4), specifically associated with low-fat mass (18.1 ± 3.6) . In order to clarify if a possible genetic profile could support this physical status in addition to diet and training, the researchers analysed the frequencies of some polymorphisms that can determine if our body is included to be slimmer than others'.
We can say that although our weight is something we can control when it comes to our sports performance it often isn't the case, as we are prone to a certain amount of body mass since birth.
This doesn't mean our weight is not affected by our nutrition habits and activity levels. It definitely is! But when practising a sport that requires many hours of training, an active lifestyle and a nutrient-dense healthy diet, there's only so much one can do.