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High-Impact Sports Best for Bone Strength

Weight-bearing exercise in older adults helps keep bones strong, new study says.

As many rev up their fitness goals in the New Year, orthopedic surgeon Vonda Wright, M.D., has some advice:

Bash those bones!

That’s the language Wright uses to describe the implications of a recent study she coauthored that shows high-intensity exercise improves bone health.

In the study—published in the November/December issue of Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach—Wright and her colleagues evaluated 560 older adults who participated in the 2005 Senior Games in Pittsburgh. The competitors, whose average age was about 66, were evaluated through health and activity questionnaires and an ultrasound measuring their bone density.

When researchers controlled for other potential predictors of bone disease—including age, sex, race, use of osteoporosis medications, and a history of doctor-diagnosed obesity—participation in high-intensity exercise emerged as a “significant factor” for improved bone strength. “We know exercise is good for bone density,” says Wright, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “And we now know that high impact sports, where the bones are bashed . . . jumped on, run upon, impacted . . . are even better.” These included sports such as basketball, track and field, and volleyball.

Wright is quick to add that other activities such as walking, bicycling, and swimming are still important.

Robert Stanton, M.D., president-elect of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, agrees: “Non- or low-impact exercise also helps bone, although perhaps not as dramatically as what you get from high-impact exercise.” Stanton says Wright’s study is “a valuable addition” to the research.

Some older adults who, because of advanced osteoarthritis or other conditions, will not be able to perform high-intensity activity. However, Wright says, “if you are capable of high-intensity exercise and can choose between walking and jogging, or stationary biking and jumping rope, choose the latter . . . the activities that will bash or pound the bones. You’ll get the most benefits from them.”

John Hanc is a health and fitness writer who teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

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