Researchers used high-resolution imaging to assess bone strength in areas of the lower leg and foot where runners often experience bone injuries. Written by Stuart Worden

According to a new study by Indiana University scientists, young athletes who participate in multi-directional sports, rather than specializing in unidirectional sports such as running, can build stronger bones that may be less prone to bone damage in adulthood.

Published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the study looked at Division I and II female cross country runners who often experience stress injuries to the bones, such as stress fractures. Researchers found that when young, athletes who ran and played sports that required movement in multiple directions, such as basketball or soccer, had better bone structure and strength than those who only ran, swam or cycled.

As a result, the study’s findings support recommendations for athletes to delay specialization in running and engage in multi-sport activities at a younger age to build a stronger skeleton — and potentially prevent bone stress injuries.

“Our data show that playing multi-sport in youth, compared to specializing in one sport, such as running, reduces bone density in people an injury risk by developing a larger and stronger skeleton,” said Stuart Worden, associate dean for research and Chancellor’s Professor in the IUPUI School of Health and Human Sciences.

“There is a common misconception that children need to specialize in one sport in order to succeed at a higher level. However, recent evidence shows that athletes who specialize at a young age are at greater risk of overuse injury and are less likely to progress to a higher level of competition.”

Historically, Worden said, researchers have looked at bone mass — how many bones a person has — to determine how healthy their skeleton will be over a lifetime. But in previous research, Worden and his colleagues found that both weight and size are equally important as we age.

In the current study, researchers used high-resolution imaging to evaluate the lower leg near the ankle and the bones of the foot, where runners often experience bone injuries. They found that athletes who participated in both running and multi-sports during their youth had 10 to 20 percent greater bone strength than athletes who only ran.

“Our research shows that runners who participated in multi-sport sports in their youth had stronger bones than collegiate athletes, putting them at lower risk for bone stress injuries, including stress fractures” Warden said. “We want people to have better and stronger bones as they grow, become teenagers and go through life. Specializing in one sport at too young an age means they are more likely to get injured and not succeed at the collegiate and professional levels.”

The chief said that anyone who watches over a junior athlete or team – be it parents, coaches or trainers – should think twice about forcing them to specialize in one area too early. It recommends to ensure proper growth and development young athletes don’t major until at least your freshman year of high school. For athletes who already play multi-sport sports, he said it’s important to take time off to rest and recover throughout the year, which can improve both a bone strength and performance.

Additional study authors were Austin Sventekis, Ph.D. student, and Robin Fuchs, associate professor in the IUPUI School of Health and Human Sciences, and Rachel Surowiec of the IUPUI School of Engineering and Technology.


Overuse injuries are more common in children who play individual sports


Additional information:
Stuart J. Worden and others. Improved bone size, microarchitecture and strength in a runner with a history of multi-sport, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (2022). DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003016

Citation: Sports like football, basketball better for young athletes’ bone health than running alone (2022, October 11) retrieved October 11, 2022 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2022-10-sports -soccer-basketball-young-athletes .html

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