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Published on December 04, 2017

Want to avoid brittle bones when you’re older?Want to avoid brittle bones when you’re older?

There are numerous benefits of exercise for children. Young people who exercise regularly are less apt to be overweight, which lowers their risk of diabetes and heart disease later in life. They also perform better in school and on tests.

New research now shows that inactive teens also have weaker bones than those who are physically active, putting them at greater risk for fractures and even osteoporosis down the road.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute tracked the physical activity and bone strength of 309 teenagers over a four-year period. They used high resolution 3D imaging to compare the bones of teens who got the 60 recommended minutes of exercise per day and those who got less than 30 minutes.

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The four-year window of ages 10 to 14 for girls and ages 12 to 16 for boys is a crucial time for bone development. Pediatrician Marie Kayton, MD, at Cape Cod Pediatrics in Forestdale explained that adolescence is when bones are consolidating and becoming stronger. She said middle school is also when a lot of children start to become less active, as they become more self-conscious about their athletic ability.

“Unfortunately, as kids get older, there are many that don’t find enjoyment in doing sports and activities and then they become more sedentary,” she said. “They may be an artist and they may be great readers and writers, but they’re not athletes. I always tell all my patients that they don’t have to be the superstar athlete, but we do need to have our body moving and we do need to get some exercise every day.”

The trick is to find something they enjoy doing and do it every day. Dr. Kayton recommends family dance parties, playing outside with the dog or taking a walk after dinner. Even if kids don’t play full games, dribbling a basketball, shooting hoops or hitting a baseball and catching grounders can be fun activities with no pressure of winning.

In the wintertime, she recommends snowball fights and building snowmen. Video games like Pokémon Go and Wii that get kids moving are also good on the short days of winter when it’s nearly dark when kids get home from school.

Make It Fun

“One of the keys is to make it a family thing,” she said. “I think if the children see their parents engaged in activities then they’re more likely to be engaged in activities. It’s hard for parents between work, going to the grocery store, and getting the home together, and all the things they have to do in everyday life, but I think if parents put exercise as a priority in their lives, it will also probably be a priority in their children’s lives.”

When Dr. Kayton was a child, her mother loved to run, but she didn’t enjoy running herself at the time. She would meet her mother at the end of her run and they would shoot basketballs in a small nearby court.

“I didn’t play on the basketball team,” she said. “That was just fun and enjoyable to do and that’s the key – to enjoy it and make it fun. It shouldn’t be work.”

Another important factor for children in adolescence is making sure they get enough calcium in their diet. Middle school and high school are right around the time that a lot of kids stop drinking milk, Dr. Kayton said, so she always monitors that. She encourages her patients to drink milk or eat yogurt because the best calcium comes from food.

“Exercise makes mental health better too,” she said. “It’s not just our physical health, but our mental health improves when we get moving and take a break. We feel better. We sleep better, which helps with all the childhood anxiety and depression that is going on too.”

Dr. Kayton sees a lot of anxiety in modern children and she said it’s worse if they don’t get adequate sleep. Exercise helps set our circadian rhythm so we sleep better and our mood is better.

“Fitness is something that has to be part of our lives for the rest of our lives,” she said. “And we need to start that at a young age.”