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In Gymnastics, Kids Flip for Fitness

Each Olympic year, gymnastics reenters the limelight. Once the closing ceremonies end, it's gone faster than a double back-flip.

Yet the sport provides great all-around exercise for children and youths. And they don't have to want to be the next Mary Lou Retton or Paul Hamm.

"Every parent wants their kids to stay physically fit and learn what their bodies are capable of, and in essence that's what gymnastics does," says USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny. "At its very foundation, gymnastics is about fitness."

Nearly 7 million Americans did gymnastics at least once in 2006, according to American Sports Data. Almost half—3.2 million—were girls ages 6 to 17.

The sport helps build strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. Its all-around fitness benefits make it a good springboard to other activities. "Whatever any other sport can throw at them, they are going to be better prepared if they were gymnasts," Penny says.

As with any sport, there are safety concerns. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) estimates 86,000 gymnastics-related injuries take place each year. The AAOS offers these suggestions:

  • Gymnasts should always do a warm-up and stretching routine.

  • Mats and floor padding should be secured under equipment.

  • A coach should spot gymnasts during any challenging move.

  • Pads (knee, elbow, heel) or braces (ankle, knee, elbow, wrist) can add protection.

Parents should also watch gymnasts' eating habits. Weight concerns can lead girls to eating disorders that harm growth.

Penny says it's best to find an established, certified gymnastics club. Member clubs of USA Gymnastics (http://www.usa-gymnastics.org) require coaches to complete safety certification and know CPR. Many schools offer gymnastics, too.