Busy body, better bones

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2011

Nature gives kids plenty of energy so that they'll stay active for several hours a day. That physical activity is especially evident in the years from kindergarten through college, which just happens to be the window during which the bony skeleton fully develops. Beyond the late twenties it's hard to exercise enough to build much bone mass and strength. It's during the school years, or else.

Every hour that a child spends in front of the TV or playing computer games is an hour that could have been spent in the kind of exercise that kids need to develop muscle mass, coordination and a skeleton that won't become fragile in old age. Compared to those who grew up in the 1970s, children of all ages today already have lower bone density and an increased fracture rate. The incidence of forearm fractures in children has doubled since 1970 in some communities.

Pregnant teenagers have lower bone mass than they should have, partly because adolescent girls have such low physical activity. Not only do they face a high risk of osteoporosis as they enter late middle age, their children will be born with less than adequate bone mass as well. Thus, two generations face a serious risk of fracture in the future.

Ordinary childhood play goes a long way to build strong bones but are today's children getting as much out of such play as those who grew up prior to the middle of the 20th century? Back then Mom didn't drive young athletes to the ballpark; most walked or arrived on bikes. A pick-up ballgame, whether baseball, football or basketball was an hours-long affair and there was no coach to make substitutions. Everybody who showed up usually got to play the whole game.

That wasn't the end of it. The country was less urbanized before WWII and farm kids had more responsibilities for chores. Suburban children helped out around the house without labor-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners, motorized lawnmowers and snow blowers. Dad needed the family car to get to work, so youngsters walked to school or at least to the closest bus stop. They played sweaty games during recess, including dodgeball, which is no longer allowed.

Osteoporosis is a looming epidemic that is barely a blip on the nation's healthcare radar screen but it promises to add mightily to the cost of medical care if we don't get our children moving.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.