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Is It Safe For Pre-Teen Girls To Run Long Distances Competitively?

The two sisters, Kaytlynn and Heather Welsch, have competed in over 70 endurance events, including rugged 13-mile trail runs, triathlons, and half-marathons. They are earning national attention, even more for their youth than their impressive athletic performances: They are 12 and 10 years old.

In a profilein today's New York Times, fascinating questions are raised. Is such pounding punishment for the girls' legs and feet dangerous for their long-term growth? Can they acquire adequate nutrition considering their high energy output? Could their psychological well-being be compromised by the weight of others' expectations for them? And what about the risks of delayed puberty?

Science tells us that young female athletes may indeed face elevated risks, including disordered eating and menstrual dysfunction. And the psychological component can't be ignored. Some of the scathing comments made to Kaytlynn by her father after her less-than-stellar showing in a race (quoted near the end of the Times profile) made my stomach churn.

Yet we're in the midst of an urgent national conversation about rising rates of obesity in kids, owing in large part to their lack of exercise. The risks to intense levels of pre-teen running (or of participation in other sports) surely co-exist with large potential benefits for kids' fitness. The case study of the Welsch sisters offers a provocative new gateway into that discussion.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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