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With a whopping 6,755 hours of Summer Olympics programming via multiple networks and 4,500 hours of live-streamed digital coverage to feast upon, it got me to wondering what might be the health and fitness leftovers for your average couch potato following the closing ceremony.

Beyond national pride and the spirit of completion drawing us to the screen, we are witnessing a spectacle of absolutely extraordinary feats of flexibility, strength and skill. These qualities are certainly on display within the ranks of the U.S. gymnastics team, especially the women’s team.

Dr. Timothy Miller, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, is watching as well. To the question of why these female gymnasts are so incredibly flexible, their age is a major factor, he tells the folks at Live Strong. There was a time when the average female gymnast was in their 20s and 30s. This all changed at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics when a 14-year-old Romanian gymnast with the now iconic name of Nadia Comaneci won three gold medals, as well as silver and a bronze.

Soon rules had to be instituted requiring female gymnasts be at least 16 years old in the calendar year in which the Olympics are held in order to compete in the games. Today, most gymnasts continue to be quite young, usually between the ages of 16 and 22, says Miller. This age range is no coincidence, as younger women are biologically more flexible than women in their 30s. A woman’s main reproductive years are between ages 14 and 30, Miller tells Live Strong. During that time, they have a relaxing hormone that is provided to facilitate the birth process. This affords soft tissues, such as ligaments and tendons, increased flexibility and allows young female gymnasts more agility.

It is also no coincidence that today’s gymnasts are short in stature. It gives them a lower center of gravity. If their center of gravity is lower, then it is all the closer to the base of support – the legs – which is especially helpful on the balance beam. According to a 2003 study in the journal Sports Biomechanics, when you add to that a high strength-to-mass ratio, it helps a gymnast excel at whole-body rotations.

Moreover, female gymnasts are flexible because of their rigorous training regimens, which include massive amounts of exercise, including stretching, cardio, core conditioning and drills, says Live Strong. Because of their young age and constant exercise, they have more “organized” collagen – a protein found in connective tissue giving it strength and increased flexibility. As people age and exercise less, their collagen becomes disorganized, says Miller. This can increase a person’s risk of injury such as ligament tears.

Elite gymnasts who make the games are there due to innate talent, rigorous training and conditioning, and, of course, diet. Consider the training regime of U.S. Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton leading up to the games, as recounted to St. Louis Magazine.

On a typical day, he’d rise at 7:00 a.m. and begin his first workout – an hour of strength and conditioning followed by a breakfast of egg whites with mushrooms, fruit, toast, and possibly turkey bacon. He then would allow himself some downtime and another meal (usually oatmeal and eggs) before his main four hour or so workout in the afternoon. This workout would require Dalton to refuel his body with more wholesome food; generally chicken, sweet potatoes and salad for dinner, followed later by more chicken and salad. In order to be well-rested, he would be in bed most nights by 10 p.m.

Not all competitors follow such traditional food choices. Like their workouts, their choices can be extreme. Swimming superstar Michael Phelps once claimed he scoffed up to 12,000 calories a day, consisting of chocolate chip pancakes, fried egg sandwiches and pizza. Now a new dad, he recently mentioned his diet choices are more sensible nowadays, such as grilled chicken and asparagus.

Gold medalist Gabby Douglas recently told Self magazine of her love of snacking. She admitted her daily snack of choice is usually a handful of dark chocolate almonds. Not a bad choice, when you think about it. Dark chocolate has been touted for lowering blood pressure, and it’s high in antioxidants. A handful of almonds are loaded with minerals, fiber and protein. The fat content can help to keep one feeling full and prevent overeating.

It’s important to remember that because these athletes exercise so beyond what even a normal “active” person would, they generally must also supplement their diet. Commonly, athletes will bolster their dietary intake with everyday vitamins such as magnesium and iron, as well as more exotic products such as whey protein, creatine, carnitine and branched-chain amino acids specifically aimed at improving performance and recovery time. It’s incumbent upon the athletes to stay on top of what’s contained in the products they take. Their career depends upon it. To assist them, there is a hotline available for Olympic athletes to check on any supplement.

There is one thing on which most athletes and experts seem to agree. If you want to be an elite athlete, good nutrition at a young age is an important place to start.

So, before the spotlight fades on this global showcase of extreme health and fitness, it’s important to make one final point. When it comes to our national eating habits, we long ago fell off the balance beam. And the sad news is that we continue to ignore this fact.

Today, more than 80 percent of Americans fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. At the same time, far too many Americans continue to overeat refined grains and sugar. This news comes from an NPR poll conducted with Truven Health Analytics. The study, conducted in May of this year, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 3,000 U.S. adults. Of these, about 75 percent of respondents ranked their diets as good, very good or excellent.

At the same time, a new report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics shows that American men weigh, on average, 15 lbs. more than they did two decades ago. For American women, the number is 16.2 lbs. Along with weight, our waistline has also been expanding in the past two decades. The average waist circumference of men has reached 40 inches and 38.1 inches for women. Now that’s “swell” news that’s hard to ignore.

Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.

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