Osteoporosis is a major public health concern later on in life. The interesting thing about our bones is the only time you can increase the amount of bone in your skeleton is during the growing years. Once you hit your early 20s all you can do is delay the rate at which you lose your bone density. However, there is a theory that if you can increase your peak bone mass (i.e. the amount of bone that you have at the end of your growth period) you can potentially reduce the risk of bone fragility and related fracture later in life.
It has been known for a long time that elite level gymnasts have really good bone density, but we can’t expect everyone to participate 20 hours a week in elite sports.
“During my PhD I studied recreational gymnastic participants and found that with one to two hours a week children have better bone strength, especially at the forearm,” says Dr. Marta Erlandson, assistant professor in the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. “This finding is a big advantage, because the upper limb is the most common site of fracture in childhood, with roughly 65% of all fractures being at the wrist.”
While we know physical activity during the growing years has a beneficial impact on bone development with the most active children laying down more bone compared to less active peers, we aren’t sure which type of exercise is most beneficial.
“The type of exercise required to bring about the greatest benefits for bone development remains unknown,” says Dr. Erlandson. “Most physical activity intervention programs have focused on lower limbs, paying little attention to upper limb exercises.”
In 2015, Dr. Erlandson was awarded a SHRF Establishment Grant to investigate the effect of a school-based physical activity intervention that challenges the upper and lower limbs on bone development for both short- and long-term health benefits.
Dr. Erlandson is working in partnership with the Saskatoon Public School Board to conduct this study. Two schools in Saskatoon have been purposefully sampled to have similar demographics, programming and social supports and have confirmed interest. Children in Grades 6 through 8 at School 1 will receive an eight-month weight-bearing physical activity intervention, while those at School 2 will receive conventional physical education programming.
“I will measure the children’s bone density and structure before and after the intervention,” says Dr. Erlandson, “as well as, one and two years later to see if these benefits are being maintained.”
“We are looking at primary prevention in trying to decrease the burden on our health care system later in life,” says Dr. Erlandson. “But bone is unique and we really can’t do that in the 50s and 60s when the low bone mass shows up.”
Read more about Dr. Erlandson research in the latest edition of Research for Health.