New study links childhood diet and exercise to prevention of the disease
A new study has found that walking to school and putting fresh fruit and vegetables on school dinner menus could help to protect youngsters from osteoporosis in old-age.
The ground-breaking Action Medical Research study compared young gymnasts to their couch-potato counterparts and found that regular exercise and healthy food builds strong bones.
The research team from the University of Manchester is the first to have made the link between an active childhood and reducing the risk of the disease - significantly moving forward our understanding of osteoporosis and its prevention.
Osteoporosis affects a staggering 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men and is responsible for over 200,000 fractures every year.
The Action Medical Research team says that the problems that many suffer in later life could be reduced by an active lifestyle during childhood.
Few realise that girls accumulate as much as 40 percent of their adult bone strength during puberty. However, by the age of 21 the process of laying down calcium reserves is complete for both sexes, from which point around 1 percent of bone mineral content is lost every year.
So it is essential that the reserves have been as fully stocked as possible during childhood and teenage years.
Unfortunately the high phosphate content of fizzy drinks and fast foods are thought to leach the body of these reserves, making bones weaker.
The Manchester based Action Medical Research project points to weight-bearing exercise as being the key to building strong bones that are able to resist stress and fracture.
It seems that old-fashioned play-ground games of hop-scotch, tag, skipping or simply running around and walking to school were more likely to increase bone calcium levels than simply sitting in front of the television, playing computer games or being driven everywhere by parents.
The £95,000-funded study looked at a group of 86 school children aged between 5 and 11. Forty-four were gymnasts and did an impressive minimum of 13.6 hours of exercise each week; the rest were healthy children who averaged 5-6 hours of exercise each week by cycling, dancing, swimming and playing football.
Half of each group took calcium tablets and half took dummy tablets for a year. The children were then scanned and had their bones measured at the start and at the end of the study – the research team looked specifically at the density and size of the bone in the forearm and shin.
The results showed that the gymnasts already had stronger, bigger bones than the ‘couch potatoes’ with an extra 10 per cent more hard bone in their shinbones and forearms.
Interestingly, whilst the calcium supplements had a beneficial effect on the bones of the school children there were no benefits in giving calcium supplements to the gymnasts.
The researchers believe this is because the gymnasts have already maximised their bone density potential with regular exercise.
Dr Zulf Mughal who works at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester and led the study said, “With osteoporosis costing the NHS around £750 million each year, the focus of our study was to look at what early preventative measures can be taken to reduce the burden of the disease in later life.
“As childhood is the most important time for laying down reserves of bone mineral we decided to look at what factors could influence this.
“We soon discovered that the very active gymnasts had bigger and stronger bones because their skeletal structure had adapted to regular load-bearing activities.
“The increase in bone strength is Mother Nature’s way of protecting the body from fractures from the forces placed on it during exercise.
“However we also found that calcium supplements can aid bone strength in the less active – though for the gymnasts it made little difference because their skeletons are already at their optimum possible level.
“It really is true that the food and lifestyle habits of young children are really going to affect them in later life.”
The team hopes that the results of this survey will shock parents, schools and health professionals into providing better and more regular opportunities for growing children to exercise and improve their diet to improve their long-term health.
The Chief Executive of Action Medical Research, Simon Moore said, “It’s crucial that youngsters learn about nutrition and understand the importance of regular exercise in building their health reserves for the future.
“It may seem like common sense, but when children are outside running around, skipping or playing actively it has to be better for them than being cooped up in an airless room watching television or playing computer games.
“Equally eating ‘junk’ food and fizzy drinks cannot possibly compare to the potential health benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Action Medical Research will continue to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle for everyone, but it is especially important that our children are given the best possible start in life.
“That responsibility lies in all our hands.”
Case Study – Jessica Beddoes - Age 14
Jessica Beddoes is a gymnast at the Gorton Gymnastic Centre in Manchester and took part in the study.
She does a very impressive 20 hours of exercise a week.
Jessica said, “I liked being in the study although I didn’t like taking the tablets because they were horrible!
“It was also difficult for me to be in the scanner too because I don’t like sitting still for very long! I have to watch what I eat as a gymnast but I still like to eat crisps!”
Jessica’s mother Jane Beddoes is a gymnastics teacher and is already aware of the benefits of having healthy bones. She said, “I think it is essential to raise awareness and educate parents about the benefits of building up their children’s bones when they are young.
“We thought that the Action Medical Research study sounded important so we were really pleased to be able to take part. We know how vital it is to eat a proper balanced diet so I hope that Jessica is developing nice strong bones that will last her a lifetime.”
Weight-bearing exercise – why it’s good for bones.
The biggest force to which bones are subjected is the pull of the muscles attached to them.
When such strain placed on the bone — arising especially from weight-bearing exercise such as running or brisk walking — it makes the bone able to resist stress and fracture.
It is the effect of both physical strain and calcium on bone is that it increases the total amount of mineral density and size — and this improves the bone’s strength.
A study of adult tennis players has shown that the playing arm has up to 40 per cent more bone mass than the non-playing arm.
The levels of bone mineral content that any person lays down in a lifetime are decided by 70 per cent genetic factors and 30 per cent through exercise, diet and lifestyle.
Your donation could help fund vital research for children