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How to build Olympian-strength bones

July 29, 2016 GMT

Olympic athletes stand out for their unmatched speed, skills and agility. Though it is not as easy to recognize, many of them also stand out for their bone strength. Gymnasts, basketball players and sprinters often boast high bone density and, thus, a lower incidence of osteoporosis. One reason may be the pounding impact of these sports, which may help build stronger bones.

How do sports impact bone health?

Research into the impact of sports on bone health has provided evidence showing a link. A 2015 study looking at gymnasts between the ages of 4 and 12 in the journal ‘Osteoporosis International’ found “childhood recreational gymnastics exposure may be advantageous to bone development at the wrist.” Another study in the 2013 Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine found similar results saying, “participation in gymnastics during pre-pubertal growth was associated with skeletal health benefits, particularly to the upper body.” These studies are among several touting the link between weight-bearing physical activity and good bone health.

“Bone responds to dynamic, rather than static, exercise like jumping or pushups,” explains Patty Trela, P.T., a physical therapist with the University Orthopaedic Center. “It makes sense that athletes who participate in sports that require this type of activity can build extremely strong bones.”

But for the majority of us who don’t spend our days pulling backwards handsprings or sprinting the 40-yard dash, how can we keep our bones at their strongest?

And why build bone health?

To begin, it’s important to know who is at risk. Weak bones can develop into osteoporosis, which is a disease that occurs when our bodies lose bone faster than they can build it, or when our bodies make too little bone, or both. “Osteoporosis is more common than most people realize,” says Trela.

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, roughly 54 million Americans have osteoporosis. About 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men above the age of 50 will eventually break a bone because of the disease. Genetics can be to blame, but other factors play a role such as diet, a sedentary lifestyle, medical conditions such as thyroid imbalances, and aging.

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Many people don’t know they have osteoporosis because they can’t feel their bone density weakening. Often, broken bones, height loss or curving spines are the first red flags of the condition. This is why it is important for older people to take measures to improve their bone health, get bone density screenings and work with their health care providers to strengthen their bones. If they don’t take these steps they could end up with a broken bone. If that bone is in the hips or spine — a common problem with osteoporosis — they could end up with serious complications, a lack of mobility and a decreased quality of life.

Prevention is key

“It’s good to start talking about osteoporosis prevention early on because we’re living longer,” says Hanadi Farrukh, M.D., an internist with University of Utah Health Care. “When patients come to the clinic for a visit, there’s a myriad of questions and health issues on their minds and often, especially for younger patients, bone health isn’t at the forefront,” says Farrukh.

According to Farrukh, a patient achieves peak bone density in his or her 20s and then begins to lose bone mass gradually. In women, that bone loss increases after menopause. Farrukh recommends adequate amounts of food-sourced calcium (about 4 servings a day) combined with 800-1000 units of vitamin D daily. You should also be doing weight-bearing exercises such as weight training or jogging. Cut out soda and smoking, and keep alcohol consumption to less than three drinks a day.

Lifestyle choices are not the only factor when it comes to osteoporosis risk. Factors such as family history, low body weight, rheumatoid arthritis or use of steroid medicine can also put a patient at risk. Osteoporosis also may be secondary due to a condition like Cushing’s disease or Multiple Sclerosis.

Are you at risk?

Anyone with these risk factors should ask their primary care provider to perform an assessment using a bone density test called a DXA scan. It’s a non-invasive and painless X-ray test that measures bone thickness and bone loss. The information from this test allows patients to take the necessary steps to avoid broken bones in the future. Calcium supplements, exercise and medication can help those who are at risk.

Olympic athletes train their whole lives for a chance to go for the gold. Their hard work and determination give them wills of steel, and bones of iron. Luckily, you don’t have to train like an Olympian to have bones as strong as one. When it comes to building stronger bones, knowledge is power. “Talk to your doctor and encourage your young adult children to talk to their providers. Thinking about this disease early on may help prevent it later in life,” says Farrukh.

What to do

University of Utah Health Care offers aBuild a Bonecourse to help participants learn more about osteoporosis. These classes, led by medical professionals, focus not only on identifying signs of bone loss and osteoporosis but also on how to improve your overall bone health. After all, Olympic athletes aren’t the only ones who need strong bones.