It’s been known for some time that exercise promotes bone health. Specifically, weight-bearing activities that place stress on the bone increases bone density, bone mineral content and improves bone strength. In both the young and elderly, stress placed on the bone stimulates growth, improving density as well as strength. Several studies also show that those who participate in sports such as weightlifting, running, gymnastics and soccer have improved bone health compared to inactive control subjects. In fact, most recommend activities such resistance exercise for older adults and the elderly who want to preserve bone health. Researchers in Sweden asked the question about carry over from youth to adulthood. Do improvements in bone health as a young age extend as we grow older? They report that yes, participating in sports during adolescence results in reduced bone fractures and improved overall health during the elderly years.
The subjects for this study were 709 internationally or nationally ranked Swedish former athletes. They range in age from 50-93 years and had been retired from their sport for an average of 35 years. More than half of the subjects were former soccer players. The remainder came from sports including handball, ice hockey, cycling, and weightlifting. A group of 1368 non-athletes were used for comparison. All of the subjects completed a questionnaire regarding their lifestyle. They were also asked to recall fractures suffered before the start of their careers, during their playing days after they had retired from their sport.
The risk of having suffered a fracture during the years before the athletes started competitive play was similar to the non-athletes. As expected, this risk increased during the competitive years with the athletes being twice as likely to have experienced a fracture. The expected finding of this study was that during retirement, the risk if injury in the athletes was substantially lower than in the control group. The risk of suffering any type of bone fracture after age 50 was 30% lower in these former competitors. The risk of suffering a fracture due to frailty was one-half. These risks declined even more during the later stage of life, beyond age 80.
Lifestyle factors may have influenced the results as the athletes as alcohol use and medications take were slightly less compared to the control subjects as was the incidence of disease. Unfortunately, participation rates in regular exercise during the adult years were not reported.
Competitive athletes suffer fewer bone injuries and have greater overall health during their retirement years compared to non-athletes. This leads one to speculate that there are long-term benefits to early sports participation. This is not the first study to show that participation in sports has benefits that carry over in adulthood. Studies of retired competitive gymnasts show that improvements in bone density during training last into retirement. This was true even in those gymnasts who did not continue to exercise.
The health benefits of youth sports participation do not require the individual to be a highly competitive athlete. And they are not limited to just bone. Other studies show that the likelihood of former high school athletes to continue exercising as adults are greater that non-sports participants. Also, adolescent who are involved in any type of organized sport are less likely to develop metabolic syndrome later in life (obesity, hypertension, diabetes and/or high cholesterol). Thus, the effects of participation on long-term health seem to hold true for any organized sport, from recreational to highly competitive.
There seem to be a number of reasons for these long-term benefits. It is possible that exercise during the developmental years has biological effects that extend into adulthood. It is also possible that positive experiences associated with sport solidify healthy diet and exercise habits that lead to a long-term participation in physical activity. Lastly, it may be that those participating in sports during their early years understand the benefits of exercise in terms of health, well-being and body image. In either case, sports programs seem to lay the groundwork for a more active and healthy adulthood.
Thus, there are compelling reasons to encourage children and teenagers to get involved in an organized sports program. There is also strong rationale to support community sports programs, be they recreational, club- or school-based. Encouraging kids to play sports can have positive short-term effects as well as long-term benefits on overall health.
Tveit M, Rosengren BE, Nyquist F, Nilsson JÅ, Karlsson MK (2013) Former male elite athletes have lower incidence of fragility fractures than expected, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 5: 405-410.