by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP

One Or More…Which Is Better?

Did you know that the sports we play as kids and teenagers have a direct impact on an individual’s health and wellness as an older adult? Not only can they impact your health as you develop, the sports you play may have a very large impact on adult health throughout our time on this earth. A recent research publication examined a big question that many parents of youth athletes have: “Should my kid play multiple sports, or just one?” 

What Are We Looking At?

While each sport has unique impacts on the human body we’ll focus on bone health. This is something that many of us often don’t consider until we’re older adults and start to experience fractures due to low bone strength. As we age these fractures become increasingly dangerous and can ultimately prove fatal. A very large amount of your total bone mass and strength is formed in your childhood, teen, and early adult years, therefore, what we do during these times is critical to our long-term health and wellness. 

In their research, Warden et. al. took an approach that looked at the bone health of college female runners. Participants either did or did not take part in multidimensional sports (MDS) such as basketball, soccer, and similar sports. To count as a runner in the MDS group they had to have taken part in an applicable sport for at least 6 months per year for at least the past five years. At this point, you may be thinking “Wait! Running is a weight-bearing sport that promotes bone health due to the impact so they should be fine regardless of what they did!” Let’s take a look at what the study discovered…

What Are The Findings?

According to the study, even within a group of athletes in a weight-bearing sport, there were substantial differences! The runners who were also in MDS showed a higher bone mineral density across the entire body (+5.8%) and in their lumbar spine (+8.0%), lower leg total volumetric (+12.4%), and trabecular (+15.9%) volume bone mineral density, larger fibula diaphesis (+11.6%), and more. These results mean that the athletes who took part in other sports that involved moving in multiple ways (MDS) had better bone strength, size, and microarchitecture (the structures within the bone). This should mean that athletes who take part in these sports will be more resilient to bone stress injuries, such as stress fractures or shin splints, and have better bone health later in life. 

What Does This Mean For Parents And Coaches?

The data here is very clear, youth athletes need to take place in sports that stress their bones in multiple ways (ie MDS). These sports challenge and cause their bones to grow and remodel in ways that appear to be highly protective against injury and aging. Of course, we’ve all heard the virtues of crosstraining! This is important for anyone's health and wellness, particularly for youth athletes who may go on to compete at a collegiate or professional level. As they advance, their training becomes more intense and can increase the risk for bone stress injuries which can contribute to a loss of training time or end a career. Ultimately, participation as a youth athlete in multidimensional sports is highly recommended, and can also be beneficial for everyone, regardless of age. 

It’s important to note that this may yield even more positive outcomes beyond just bone health. By being encouraged to step back or away from their primary sport for a duration of time, youth athletes are provided with a different physical challenge and a psychological break. This may help reduce the risk of burnout in their primary sport. This can also enhance their performance, especially in dynamic sports like mountain biking, by forcing their brain to learn new motor skills that may be useful in their primary sport. 

Can’t They Focus On One Sport Now And Do Other Sports Later?

While this is a viable approach, it can undermine the potential benefits since it limits the positive effect on bone health. The reality is that during our childhood to early adult years, we lay down and remodel bone at a very high rate, in particular during puberty. These are the years where our choice of activity can, and does, have a major impact on how bones are made in our body. As we grow older and out of puberty we continue to remodel our bones regularly but the rate of change slows drastically. Our bones can adapt to stress but not as effectively as when we were younger. The key to bone health appears to be to start early, provide many challenges, and make a continual effort as we grow older.

But This Research Was On Runners Not Bikers So Does It Even Apply?

As always, we should keep in mind who is studied in a research experiment. Other data shows that people who perform weight-bearing sports have better bone health than people who perform non-weight-bearing sports. Cycling, and yes even mountain biking, is a non-weight-bearing sport. Therefore, if cycling or another non-weight-bearing sport is your primary activity then we need to be very aware of our need to perform some activity that promotes bone health. With all this in mind, we can hypothesize that it would be even more important for youth cyclists to also take part in multidimensional sports for 6 or more months out of the year. 

What’s The Bottom Line?

Youth athletes of any type need to take part in multidimensional sports in order to optimize their bone development and health; this is especially true for non-weight-bearing sports! The goal should be that they participate in these sports to some degree for at least 6 months per year, every year. 

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WARDEN, STUART J.1,2,3; SVENTECKIS, AUSTIN M.1; SUROWIEC, RACHEL K.2,4; FUCHS, ROBYN K.1,2. Enhanced Bone Size, Microarchitecture, and Strength in Female Runners with a History of Playing Multidirectional Sports. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 54(12):p 2020-2030, December 2022. | DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003016