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Gymnastics Helps With Bone Density

May 10, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Maybe U.S. sports federations should add rhythmic gymnastics programs as an aid to bone health. A new study finds that long-term elite-level rhythmic gymnastics participation seems to improve bone density and strength in adolescent girls.

Rhythmic gymnastics, which is especially popular in Europe, combines elements from the gymnastics that most Americans are familiar with (floor exercises and flips, for example) with dance. Participants leap, balance, and pirouette as they manipulate ropes, hoops, balls, clubs, and ribbons. Here’s a video sample, but be warned: you might pull a muscle just watching these extremely skilled and incredibly flexible young athletes. (Another warning: the soundtrack is pretty loud.)

“Previous studies of adolescents have found an association between weight-bearing exercise and increased bone density and bone strength,” Symeon Tournis, MD, told The Endocrine Society. “Our findings show that training in rhythmic gymnastics significantly improves bone health in adolescent girls.”

Dr. Tournis, of the University of Athens in Greece, is lead author of the study, which will appear in the June issue of The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. “Given that osteoporosis traits start in childhood,” he said, “it is possible to speculate that if girls maintain their gymnastic training beyond adolescence, even if their training is less intensive, they may have a reduced risk of bone fracture later in life.”

Researchers evaluated 49 girls ages 9 through 13. Of the 49, 26 were top-level rhythmic gymnasts who had trained for at least two years, and the other 23 engaged in only routine physical education-related activity. The researchers measured volumetric bone density, bone mineral content, and cortical thickness (thickness of the outer shell of the bone). They discovered that the rhythmic gymnasts had greater cortical thickness and bone strength.

“There are a small number of studies that have evaluated the effect of weight-bearing exercise on bone mineral density and bone geometry,” Tournis said.

However, to our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the effect of long-term elite rhythmic gymnastics on bone geometry using peripheral quantitative computed tomography (pQCT) along with detailed evaluation of bone turnover markers.

The pQCT scans measure volumetric bone mineral density and cross-sectional bone dimensions at peripheral skeletal sites, such as the radius and tibia. The study team used pQCT instead of dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA), another tool commonly used to measure bone density, because DXA measurements can be affected by skeletal size, whereas pQCT measurements are not.

“The long-term significance of the skeletal benefits gained by intensive exercise remains uncertain,” Tournis said. “Some studies have shown a decline in bone mineral density after the cessation of training, while a recent study has found increases in bone mineral content and cortical thickness in female gymnasts six years after retirement.”

Related seminar: Musculoskeletal MRI


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