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Child Exercise Prevents Adult Arthritis

The best time to prevent arthritis may be decades before it strikes -- with regular exercise in childhood to build joint cartilage during the "wonder years."

Researchers in the newest issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine say that vigorous child exercise can reduce the risk of osteoarthritis later in life by building up cartilage. Loss of cartilage -- the firm, rubbery cushion between bones -- is believed to be a principal cause of osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis.

In reviewing previous research, Australian researchers report that child exercise has been shown to increase knee cartilage between 7% and 15% in boys and between 4% and 10% in girls compared with less active kids. Building cartilage through child exercise may carry over into adulthood, making knees and other joints less vulnerable to osteoarthritis.

Another study showed some of the most striking findings linking lack of child exercise and arthritis -- children who had not been active in the previous two weeks had up to 25% less cartilage than mildly active kids.

"The current evidence supports a prescription of vigorous physical activity for optimum joint development in children," write Flavia Cicuttini of Monash University in Melbourne, and her colleagues.

The catch-22: Those who stand to benefit most from cartilage-building child exercise are also most likely to suffer injuries from it -- including those that damage joints, making them more vulnerable to future arthritis. That's because in order to build bone, muscle, and cartilage to prevent later osteoarthritis, children fare best with weight-bearing activities.

"But it's these weight-bearing activities that increase the risk of sports-related injury in children," says Julie Gilchrist, MD, medical epidemiologist at the National Center for Injury Prevention & Control.

She and her colleagues at the CDC report in the June issue of Injury Prevention that children between ages 5 and 14 have the highest rate of sports-related injuries of all age groups -- including those to knees, ankles, wrists, and other joints that could boost the later risk of osteoarthritis. Their rate of injury -- about 60 injuries per 1,000 children -- is more than four times higher than young adults. Basketball topped all sports in causing injuries, she says.

"We always want to get kids to be more active, because if they aren't active as children, their likelihood of being active as adults is significantly less," Gilchrist stated in an interview. "But parents need to take measures to ensure they don't have long-term consequences."

Her advice:

  • Make sure children are properly conditioned before starting a new activity. "If you sign your child up for a soccer team and they haven't been exercising on a regular basis, walk with them each night for a few months before practice begins."
  • Pick the right skill level. Whether in pickup games or organized leagues, make sure your children are playing with others who are comparable to their abilities. "Over-playing" boost risks of injury.
  • Check gear to ensure it fits properly and is in good shape. This includes bicycles as well as protective pads, helmets, and athletic equipment.
  • Talk to officials. In youth leagues, speak to coaches and referees to ensure they are "mindful of injury prevention," says Gilchrist.


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