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Youth sports participation associated with increased bone density in early adulthood

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October 29, 2018

Young adults who regularly participated in sports activities during childhood and adolescence are more likely to have increased bone density than their less athletic peers, according to findings published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

Joanne A. McVeigh

“Our study provides a strong rationale for the early and persistent encouragement of sports participation among young children and adolescents in order to support primary prevention strategies for the prevention of osteoporosis and age-related fracture,” Joanne A. McVeigh, PhD, senior lecturer in the School of Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy and Social Work at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, told Endocrine Today.

In a community-based, longitudinal cohort analysis, McVeigh and colleagues analyzed data from 984 children from the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) study, born between 1989 and 1991. Assessments occurred in utero, at birth and at 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 14, 17 and 20 years. Participants provided blood samples to measure serum vitamin D concentrations and underwent a DXA scan at age 20 years to assess bone mineral content and bone area, as well as appendicular lean mass, whole-body lean mass and fat tissue mass. Three trajectories of sport participation were determined via parent report when children were aged 5, 8, 10, 14 and 17 years. Categories for girls included consistent sports participators, defined as regular sports participation from age 5 to 17 years (48%); dropouts, defined as those who stopped playing sports by age 8 years (34%); and nonparticipators (18%). Categories for boys included consistent sports participators (55%), dropouts (37%) and sport joiners, defined as boys who started to play sports at age 14 years (8%).

The researchers found that men at age 20 years who were consistent sports participators as youths had greater whole-body and leg bone mineral content vs. those who dropped out of a sport (P < .001). Men who were sports joiners had greater leg bone mineral content vs. those who dropped out of sports (P = .002). There were no between-group differences for joiners vs. consistent participators at any sites measured, according to researchers.

Among women aged 20 years, those who were consistent sports participators had greater leg bone mineral content vs. those who dropped out (P = .004). There were no between-group differences for whole-body bone mineral content.

“Bones respond to the loads placed on them,” McVeigh said. “There is convincing evidence that the growing skeleton has a better ability to respond to mechanical stresses (loads) than the adult skeleton does. Therefore, being part of organized sport during these critical, developmental periods allows for optimal bone acquisition, leading to a higher bone mass in young adulthood (and later life). This may have clinical implication for a reduced risk of fracture in later life.”

McVeigh added that longitudinal birth cohort studies, such as the Raine study, are important for answering these types of questions about the life course effects of certain behaviors.

“These studies can be expensive and take years for the data to be gathered but are absolutely critical in enhancing our understanding of these important research questions,” McVeigh said. “A very important next step would be to understand the characteristics that make up the groups of people who stay in sport or drop out. By knowing these details, we can target interventions aimed at keeping people active for as long as possible.” – by Regina Schaffer

For more information:

Joanne A. McVeigh, PhD, can be reached at the School of Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy and Social Work at Curtin University, Kent Street, Bentley, Perth, Western Australia 6102; email:

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.

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