Erlandson, an assistant professor in the College of Kinesiology, explains that while it was known elite gymnasts developed much stronger bones than sedentary youths or even other athletes, no one knew if this held true for recreational gymnasts. The question became the subject of her graduate research.
"Competitive gymnastics is not practical or suitable for all kids, so we looked at recreational gymnastics to see if the benefits were there," she says.
Erlandson looked at four to six-year old recreational gymnasts for her Master's research, then followed the same children annually for four years for her doctoral work.
"They (the children) were involved with anything from one to four hours per week of gymnastics participation, and that increased their bone parameters."
Erlandson, herself a former competitive gymnast, explains the key is exercises that provide "impact load." While this is easy to achieve with the lower body - walking and running are impact load exercises - there are relatively few activities that work the upper body in the same way. Gymnastics is one.
"A little bit of gymnastics can be easily put into school phys-ed classes," she says.
Adequate exercise is critical to building strong bones, and this must be done during childhood and adolescence.
"Really, the only time we can increase the amount of bone in the body is during the growing years," Erlandson says. "You have your peak bone mineral accrual, which is the greatest amount of bone you're ever going to have, somewhere between 20 and 30 years of age. After that, you can't actually increase the bone. You can only slow the rate of loss."
According to a 2013 report from Active Healthy Kids Canada, only five per cent of Canadian children get enough physical activity to meet the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology's Physical Activity Guidelines. These call for an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every day, with activities that strengthen muscle and bone at least three times a week.
"Due to many factors, kids are much more sedentary and this puts them at increased risk of osteoporosis later in life," Erlandson says. "Through exercise, we can increase the amount of bone these children are accruing during childhood so that, even though they will lose it as they age, they're never going to reach a fracture threshold. That's what we hope to do with these childhood interventions."
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