Cyclists: How to Support Bone Health?

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Supporting Bone Health

The wonderfully named “hip hop” study was conducted to investigate whether hopping would improve the strength of the hip bone in older males. You may be wondering how this is relevant to male cyclists in their twenties. Yet, in a recent pilot study, some male cyclists were found to have areas of the skeleton that were below average bone mineral mineral (BMD) for an 85 year old man. This finding of low BMD in cyclists was confirmed in a recent BBC programme where Dr Karen Hind at Leeds Beckett University presented the differences in BMD across sports. Keen-eyed cyclists amongst you will have recognised Ed Clancy from JLT Condor representing cyclists, though these findings will be relevant to all levels of competitive cyclists.

So maybe research with the same aims as the “hip hop” study is exactly what needs to be conducted amongst male cyclists to investigate practical and effective ways of supporting bone health and ultimately preventing injury and optimising performance. This is aim of forthcoming research in collaboration with Dr Hind.

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Microscopic structure of bone

In common with other sports, cycling is an excellent form of exercise, driving positive adaptations throughout the body, such as improved cardiovascular fitness, body composition, muscular strength and endurance together with beneficial psychological effects. However, unlike many other forms of exercise, cycling does not encourage beneficial adaptations to the full skeletal system. This is due to a lack of mechanical osteogenic (bone building) stimuli provided in cycling, particularly at the lumbar spine. In competitive road cycling, low body mass confers a performance advantage, so restrictive or inconsistent nutrition can lead to relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). The consequent Endocrine system dysfunction can compound the negative effects on bone health of a non-load-bearing sport.

In a study of masters cyclists, decreases in BMD at all sites were more marked than in sedentary individuals. Some cyclists went from being osteopenic to osteoporotic; a rare case where exercise has a negative impact on a system in the body. Does this matter? Like all athletes, cyclists are more concerned with current athletic performance than warnings about future issues, such as osteoporosis and fracture. Yet, out of athletes across all sports, cyclists should perhaps be the most concerned. In the case of runners, suboptimal bone heath and associated RED-S may well present as a stress fracture. In the case of cyclists by the nature of non-load bearing exercise, they can push for longer with suboptimal bone and nutritional status. The full extent of any bone health issues may only come to light as result of a bike crash. Looking at the time off from injury in elite cyclists, the majority are due to fracture, with vertebral fractures often requiring long duration of recovery compared to other sites.

Maybe maintenance of BMD for adult cyclists would be realistic goal. How can this be achieved?

Multidirectional, dynamic loading patterns have been shown to produce the most positive skeletal responses. This is seen in the different site specific effects of sports, where changes of direction or plane of movement provide maximal mechanical osteogenic stimulus. Jumping and hopping have been shown to be good for bone health in premenopausal women, where brief high impact exercises were found to be beneficial for the bone mineral density (BMD) of the femoral neck of the hip.

What about targeting the lumbar spine, which is the site most at risk in cyclists? In young children, a few mechanical loading cycles of two-footed jumping from a small step improved BMD at lumbar spine compared with those that did not perform this jumping exercise. However bone is at its most responsive in childhood and skeletal loading has a more long term effect on both microarchitecture and BMD than when performed as an adult. Nevertheless, even in adulthood bone is still a dynamic tissue, able to adapt to loading stresses. Resistance training seems to be the most effective way of providing mechanical osteogenic stimulus to the lumbar spine with an additional indirect osteogenic effect of muscle pulling on bone. For example rowers have site-specific increases in BMD at the lumbar spine. In a recent study, resistance training was found to improve BMD in male distance runners with similar levels of testosterone and bone markers. This concurs with recent pilot study of cyclists, where those performing current resistance training or with recent history of participating in other sports, such as rugby or rowing, fared better in terms of BMD. In other words, the improvement in BMD mediated via mechanical rather than Endocrine effects.

Nevertheless, any form of skeletal-loading exercise will not produce the expected beneficial osteogenic effect, if performed in suboptimal nutritional status. Sufficient quantity and quality of nutrition are required to prevent RED-S. Specific nutritional factors, such as vitamin D, calcium and polyphenols, are recognised to be important in bone health. Boron is also described as decreasing bone resorption by stabilising and extending the half-life of vitamin D and improving sex steroid availability. Whilst high intake of caffeine, which can accumulate if athletes take on board caffeine gels, has a negative impact on BMD. Optimal nutritional status will in turn support the Endocrine system to mediate advantageous adaptations to exercise exercise, including bone health.

How can cyclists optimise bone health and performance on the bike with consistent and targeted skeletal-loading exercise and nutritional strategies? Watch this space! A study is planned to investigate practical and effective strategies to achieve this. No on bike hip hop dance required.

In meantime there will be more discussion on “Health, Hormones and Human Performance” at the BASEM conference 22 March. All welcome, including athletes and coaches, alongside healthcare professional working with athletes.

References

Male Athletes: the Bare Bones of Cyclists

Cyclists: Make No Bones About It BJSM 2018

Which type of exercise gives you the strongest bones? BBC

Studies

Male Cyclists: Bones, Body composition, Nutrition, Performance BJSM 2018

Longitudinal Changes in Bone Mineral Density in Male Master Cyclists and Nonathletes The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 2011

A meta-analysis of brief high-impact exercises for enhancing bone health in premenopausal women  Osteoporosis International 2012

Jumping Improves Hip and Lumbar Spine Bone Mass in Prepubescent Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial JBMR 2001

Review Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) position statement on exercise prescription for the prevention and management of osteoporosis Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 2016

Resistance training is associated with higher bone mineral density among young adult male distance runners independent of physiological factors The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 2018

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S) Practical considerations for endurance athletes

Nothing Boring About Boron Integrated Medicine 2015

Cumulative Endocrine Dysfunction in Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) BJSM 2018


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