Soccer beats swimming and cycling for bone development in boys

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SoccerPlaying soccer can significantly improve bone development in adolescent boys after one-year’s training, compared to swimming, cycling and non-sport playing, University of Exeter research shows.

Adolescence is the key period for bone development, and poor development at this stage is linked to reduced peak bone mass (the amount of bone mass at the end of the skeletal maturation, around age 30), increased fracture risk and osteoporosis later in life.

Though swimming and cycling have proven health benefits, the scientists said their study “raises a question” about whether they are good for bone development due to the non-weight bearing training – and they say young swimmers and cyclists could benefit from more weight-bearing exercise in training regimes.

“Our research shows that playing soccer can improve bone development in comparison to swimming and cycling,” said first author Dimitris Vlachopoulos, of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter.

“Though we focused on aspiring professionals who played as much as nine hours a week, playing soccer for three hours a week might be enough for a substantial effect. We already knew exercise was key for bone growth, but here we clarify what type of exercise. Although we didn’t study other sports, it’s reasonable to suppose that weight-bearing, high-impact, high-intensity exercise like tennis, badminton, basketball and handball will have similar effects to soccer.”

The year-long study, of 116 boys aged 12-14, took a variety of measures including bone mineral content (BMC). BMC measurements were taken at the lumbar spine (lower back) and femoral neck (upper leg) – both key sites for both fractures and osteoporosis.
The results showed soccer players had higher BMC than swimmers and cyclists after one year of sport-specific training.

For example, soccer players’ BMC was 7% higher than that of cyclists at the lumbar spine, and 5% higher at the femoral neck.

The research was funded by the EU via a Marie-Sklodowska-Curie fellowship awarded to principal investigator Dr Luis Gracia-Marco, also of the University of Exeter.

Gracia-Marco said: “The sports we studied are the three most popular in the UK, and it’s important to know what effects they have in relation to bone health. Adolescence is the key time for bone growth. Once a person reaches puberty, the next five years are vitally important in this respect.”

The athletes in the study were all playing high-level sport – the soccer players in Exeter City FC’s youth setup, and the swimmers and cyclists at leading clubs in the South West. The boys in the control group, though generally active, were not involved in regular sport.

Despite the many health benefits of cycling and swimming, the study found little difference in bone development between cyclists, swimmers and the control group. “This raises a question about whether swimming and cycling are good for bone development,” Gracia Marco said.

“We now need to consider how to counteract the lack of bone growth stimulus caused by cycling and swimming, possibly by encouraging swimmers and cyclists to add weight-bearing exercise in their training.”

One innovative aspect of the study was the measurement of bone texture of the lumbar spine using trabecular bone score (TBS) – the first use of this technique in adolescent athletes.

Adolescence is a crucial period for bone development and exercise can enhance bone acquisition during this period of life. However, it is not known how the different loading sports practised can affect bone acquisition in adolescent male athletes. Therefore, the purpose of the present study was to determine the 1 year longitudinal bone acquisition among adolescent males involved in osteogenic (football) and non-osteogenic sports (swimming and cycling) and compared to active controls. 116 adolescent males aged 12-14 years at baseline were monitored 1 year: 37 swimmers, 37 footballers, 29 cyclists and 14 active controls. Bone mineral content (BMC) assessed using dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA), cross-sectional area (CSA), cross-sectional moment of inertia (CSMI) and section modulus (Z) at the femoral neck assessed using hip structural analysis (HSA), and bone texture of the lumbar spine using trabecular bone score (TBS). Serum N-terminal propeptide of procollagen type I (PINP), isomer of the Carboxi-terminal telopeptide of type 1 collagen (CTX-I), total serum calcium and 25 hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D] were analysed. Footballers had significantly higher adjusted BMC at the lumbar spine (7.0%) and femoral neck (5.0%) compared to cyclists and significantly greater BMC at the lumbar spine (6.9%). Footballers presented significantly greater TBS (4.3%) compared to swimmers, greater CSMI (10.2%), CSA (7.1%), Z (8.9%) and TBS (4.2%) compared to cyclists. No differences noted between cyclists and swimmers while both groups had non-significant lower bone acquisition compared to controls. PINP was significantly higher in footballers and controls compared to cyclists and swimmers (3.3-6.0%) and 25(OH)D was significantly higher in footballers and cyclists compared to swimmers and controls (9.9-13.1%). These findings suggest that bone acquisition is higher in adolescent male footballers compared to swimmers and cyclists at the femoral neck and lumbar spine sites of the skeleton.

Dimitris Vlachopoulos, Alan R Barker, Esther Ubago-Guisado, Ioannis G Fatouros, Karen M Knapp, Craig A Williams, Luis Gracia-Marco

University of Exeter material
Journal of Bone and Mineral Research abstract

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