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Football ‘makes boys’ bones stronger’

Study claims teens who play the game may have healthier bones than those cycling or swimming

Playing football for as little as three hours a week may help bone development. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Playing football for as little as three hours a week may help bone development. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Playing football can improve bone development in adolescent boys, research shows.

Scientists compared adolescent footballers to swimmers, cyclists and a group of boys not involved in regular sport and found football led to significantly better bones after one year of training.

The study authors said adolescence is the key period for bone development and poor development at this stage is linked to reduced peak bone mass, increased fracture risk and osteoporosis later in life.

Though swimming and cycling have proven health benefits, the scientists said their study raises questions whether they are good for bone development due to the non-weight bearing training.

They said young swimmers and cyclists could benefit from more weight-bearing exercise in training regimes.

“Our research shows that playing football can improve bone development in comparison to swimming and cycling,” said lead author Dimitris Vlachopoulos, of the University of Exeter.

“Though we focused on aspiring professionals who played as much as nine hours a week, playing football 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.

Adolescence is the key time for bone growth

“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 football.”

The year-long study, of 116 boys aged 12 to 14, took a variety of measures including bone mineral content (BMC).

BMC measurements were taken at the lumbar spine and femoral neck, both key sites for both fractures and osteoporosis.

The results showed footballers had higher BMC than swimmers and cyclists after one year of sport-specific training.

For example, footballers’ BMC was seven per cent higher than that of cyclists at the lumbar spine and five per cent higher at the femoral neck.

Luis Gracia-Marco, principal investigator of the study, 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 footballers in Exeter City FC’s youth set-up, and the swimmers and cyclists at leading clubs in the southwest of England.

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.”

The Pro-Bone Study is published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

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