Why football is good for children
There is good reason to believe that the more bone mass you accumulate during childhood, the higher your eventual peak bone mass and the lower your chances of suffering osteoporotic fractures in later life. Youngsters practising gymnastics and other highly demanding sports have been shown to accumulate more bone than their less active peers. But could the same be true for less intense recreational sports – such as football?
That is the question a group of researchers from the Canary Islands set out to answer with a study following 17 prepubertal football players and 11 matched controls over a three-year period. The football group, mostly recruited from sports clubs, had been playing football for at least a year and at least three times a week, while the activities of the controls, recruited from schools, were limited to those included in the compulsory PE curriculum (two weekly 45-minute sessions).
Bone mineral content and density were measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry at the beginning and end of the study, as were body composition and various fitness variables. Key findings after 3.3 years, when all the participants were still under 13, were as follows:
- The football players exhibited greater bone mineral content (BMC) in the legs and greater bone mineral density (BMD) in all bone-loaded regions at the end of the study. More specifically, they gained twice as much femoral neck and intertrochanteric BMC in the legs than the controls and increased their femoral neck BMD by 10% more and their mean hip BMD by a third more than the control group;
- Although the footballers’ percentage body fat remained unchanged, it increased by 11 units in the control group;
- Total lean body mass increased by 6% more in the footballers than in the controls;
- The footballers attained better results than the controls in a 300m run test and 20m shuttle run test.
‘Our study shows,’ comment the researchers, ‘that just [three hours] of soccer participation a week elicits a marked osteogenic effect on clinically relevant zones. This is why we think soccer may be considered as a low-cost and effective option to improve bone acquisition in growing children.
‘Soccer participation entails benefits in cardiovascular physical fitness and soft tissue body composition as it counteracts the socio-cultural tendency to accumulate body fat and improves lean mass.
‘But the most important finding is that it has … osteogenic effects … which may facilitate the acquisition of a higher bone mineral peak, which can translate into a reduction in the risk of bone factures throughout life.’
Med Sci Sports Exerc, vol 36, no 10, pp1789-1795
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