The researchers found that the rats retained all of the skeletal exercise benefits they obtained while young even though they hadn't exercised for the rest of their lives, Warden said.
'We found the exercise resulted in a lifetime increase in bone size in the right forearms of the rats and the bones of the left forearms never caught up in size,' he said.
How big a bone is determines how resistant it is to bending, or how strong it is, he said.
As humans age, bone loss occurs from the inside surface of the bone outward, Warden noted. Exercising while young lays down additional outside layers of bone. This results in a bigger bone than otherwise would be the case.
'With more bone layers on the outside, you have more bone to lose,' Warden said.
By making the right forearm bones bigger during growth in their study, the researchers found these bones to be stronger, or more resistant to fracture, than left forearm bones despite exercise being ceased a lifetime ago.
The study demonstrates the importance of childhood exercise that stimulates the skeleton, like basketball or jumping, Warden said. Short periods of exercise several times a week are all that is needed to stimulate bone development in children, he added.
The message to older adults, however, remains the same. Even though the best time to gain lifetime bone health benefits is while people are young, exercising when people are older is essential to maintain bone mass and balance, as well as maintain aerobic fitness, all of which aid in reducing the risk of low-trauma (osteoporotic) fractures associated with aging.
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