February 1, 2011

Researchers supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) have found evidence that high impact physical activity during childhood and early adolescence can lead to long-term improvements in bone mass, even after the cessation of exercise. Their study was published in a recent issue of Osteoporosis International.

Although the size and shape of the skeleton is heavily influenced by genetics, skeletal health is also affected by the mechanical loading or impact that occurs with physical activity during growth. Weight-bearing and intense impact activities appear to reap the greatest benefits.

In an effort to identify the extent to which peak bone mass and bone health are improved by physical activity, Tamara Scerpella, M.D., currently at the University of Wisconsin, and her colleagues at SUNY Upstate Medical Center, selected gymnastics participation as their model of mechanical loading. As a subset of a larger study group, these researchers evaluated 14 female non-gymnasts and 6 ex-gymnasts from 4 years prior to menarche (the first menstrual period) to 9 years after menarche. Every 6 months, the team collected data on height, weight, calcium intake, and maturation. Annual dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) measured areal bone mineral density (aBMD) and bone mineral content (BMC) of the skull and radius (forearm).

Dr. Scerpella and her team discovered that when compared with non-gymnasts, ex-gymnasts had greater radius bone mass, size, and aBMD. These skeletal benefits persisted more than 4 years after ex-gymnasts discontinued their sport. Their work supports the notion that exercise in childhood and early adolescence can result in sustained skeletal benefit into early adulthood.

The researchers also received funding from the Orthopedic Research and Education Foundation.

The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH), is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. For more information about NIAMS, call the information clearinghouse at (301) 495-4484 or (877) 22-NIAMS (free call) or visit the NIAMS website at https://www.niams.nih.gov.


Scerpella TA, Dowthwaite JN, Rosenbaum PF. Sustained skeletal benefit from childhood mechanical loading. Osteoporos Int. 2010 Sep 14. [Epub ahead of print]

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