Does Playing Sports at a Young Age Affect Bone Growth?


Boys and girls have been playing sports for generations. Recently, doctors and exercise physiologists have realized that youth sports represent both positive and negative impacts to bone growth. Certain injuries carry the potential for long-term damage but usually are preventable. On the other hand, even moderate levels of sports and physical exercise reward young participants with improved health, including sturdier bones and stronger muscles.

Youth Sports Participation

According to the Center for Kids First, 30 to 40 million American children participate in some form of organized sports. About one-fifth of these children are members of school-based athletic teams. Nearly half of eligible children participate in organized non-scholastic sports such as Little League or Pop Warner football. Despite Title IX legislation in the 1970s, boys still have greater opportunities to participate in sports and therefore outnumber girls at nearly all levels, according to "Youth Sports in America: An Overview."

Growth Plate Injuries

Children's bones are constantly growing. Growth accelerates during puberty before coming to an end in adulthood, but bones add material only in special regions called growth plates, located near the ends of bones and points where tendons and ligaments connect to the bone. Growth plates resemble cartilage in their structure and texture before transitioning into mature, solid bone. The longer bones of the legs and arms experience the most pronounced growth, while growth plates located elsewhere influence the contours of bones. Bone fractures that extend into the growth plate run the risk of causing permanent deformity or stunting. In most cases, however, doctors are able to set the bones properly and restore normal blood flow. Crushing injuries, though relatively rare in sports, represent the greatest potential for permanent disability.

Bone Stimulation

Research has shown that even modest levels of physical exercise during the growth years has a measurable, positive impact on bone strength. One study in particular determined that active children accumulated as much as 10 percent to 40 percent more bone mass in certain areas than nonactive peers. However, the intensive and weight-conscious sports such as gymnastics and wrestling might lead to slower bone growth. Both female gymnasts and male wrestlers have later onsets of puberty and are shorter than children of the same age. Scientists suspect that a combination of high-intensity workouts and a restricted diet might work to slow overall development and bone growth.

Resistance Training and Musculoskeletal Health

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Light resistance training performed under appropriate supervision both improves performance in young athletes and protects against injury. The important point is that youth training should focus on technique rather than building muscle. Lifting more than the body is prepared for does increase chances of strains and other injuries. Expensive workout machines or a gym membership are not necessary for a quality strength training routine. Many resistance workouts incorporate thick elastic tubing or the body's own weight as an exercise tool.

More Positive Effects

The fear of injuries or delayed growth is no reason to discourage young children from sports participation. Most injuries can be prevented if children follow some basic fitness guidelines, such as warming up properly and stretching the major muscles groups. Sports build valuable life skills such as teamwork and leadership and bolster a positive self-image. The benefits of good physical fitness last a lifetime. Good habits start early and it's almost never too early to push for a lifestyle of exercise and healthy competition.