Early Toddler Walking Linked To Stronger Bones In Teens

It’s known that more mechanical load on bones leads to more bone growth, and less load on bones can lead to bone atrophy, as is the case with astronauts who have spent extended time in the International Space Station. Now, a new study has found an association between children’s abilities in common movements like jumping, running and walking at 18 months, and stronger bones as an adolescent.

One hypothesis is that these movements in toddlers put stress loads on the bones, causing them to react by becoming wider and thicker, making them stronger than those in children who may not be moving as much. Of course, it could also be that the causation is the other way around. In other words, maybe children born with stronger, larger bones begin walking sooner.

Findings from the study may help to identify who is at a greater risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures in later life. Scientists from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Bristol believe the results could also be partly attributed to children with good early life movement being more physically active as they get older.

Muscle Size Difference

These children had bigger muscles which previous work by the Bristol group, led by Professor Jon Tobias, has shown to be associated with greater physical activity. In the current study, the researchers demonstrated that around half of the differences in bone strength at 17 years old associated with movement could be explained by muscle size differences.

Lead researcher Dr Alex Ireland, from Manchester Met’s School of Healthcare Science, said:

“The findings are intriguing as they provide a link which wasn’t previously understood, primarily that how we move as a young child can have ramifications for our bone strength even 16 years later.

We believe that stronger muscles could act as a ‘marker’ for this. Being more active gives you stronger muscles which can then apply bigger forces to the bones as we walk, run or jump, helping to strengthen bones as we grow older.

Importantly, the results could have implications for later life by helping medical practitioners to anticipate and detect those who are at a greater risk of osteoporosis or fractures, thus helping them to devise prevention and coping strategies. For example, attainment of these movement skills at an early age can be easily improved even by simple parent-led walking practice at home.”

Previous studies from Dr Ireland, published in Bone in 2014, showed that babies who started to walk earlier could have up to 40 per cent higher bone mass in their shinbone compared to toddlers who were still crawling at the age of 15 months.

Alex Ireland, Adrian Sayers, Kevin C Deere, Alan Emond, Jon H Tobias
Motor Competence in Early Childhood Is Positively Associated With Bone Strength in Late Adolescence
Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 2016; 31 (5): 1089 DOI: 10.1002/jbmr.2775