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Cyclists at risk for bone loss

The sport's low-impact nature isn't conducive to building strong bones. Adding high-impact exercises can ease the risks of injury.

February 16, 2009|Jeannine Stein

Even perspiration can be a factor, Bemben says: "Cyclists may lose a lot of calcium in their sweat," she says. "Even if they're taking in amounts [of liquid] that are seemingly high for the average man, that might not be enough to balance what they're excreting."


Getting the word out

Though the subject of bone density occasionally pops up on cycling message boards, it's not exactly a hot topic. "Some people have no clue," Testa says. "They don't even know it's an issue." A dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan is most often used to test bone density, a non-invasive test that uses low levels of radiation. Testa adds, "Often people are surprised to find that their results are not ideal."

And though women are reminded (via the media or their physicians) to up their calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis, men usually don't get the same messages. Young male cyclists, especially, figure they're healthy and don't need to be concerned. Some sports medicine physicians, orthopedists and cycling coaches discuss the issue with patients, but Testa and others say more education may be necessary.

Coggan, still a competitive amateur cyclist, got another DXA scan a few weeks ago and the news wasn't great -- he has osteopenia in his lumbar spine and osteoporosis in his hips. He says that while he does do weight training and runs occasionally, he knows he needs to focus his athletics more on health rather than performance. "I have a couple more athletic goals I want to achieve," he says, "and then I may have to start jumping rope."




Some help for at-risk cyclists

Cyclists who may be at risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis include those who have been cycling for years without doing any other activities, are very thin, have a family history of osteoporosis or are post-menopausal.

Those athletes should consult a physician to see if any treatments or tests are necessary, such as a bone density scan, known as a DXA (not all insurance plans cover the test). They should also discuss lifestyle changes such as eating more foods that contain protein and essential bone-building nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D. A registered dietitian -- preferably one who has worked with athletes -- can help design a meal plan that includes key foods.

And, of course, they should cross-train.

Cross-training for cyclists doesn't require hours of doing other exercises. Some light strength-training can help build bone mass and squats are especially good for loading the spine. Jumping rope -- or just jumping -- also provides impact the bones need.

Running, soccer and basketball are good plyometric sports, but doing too much too soon could cause fractures, especially if bones are already compromised.

Keep in mind that bone loss can't be reversed overnight. Depending on the severity of the loss, it may take months or even years to see an improvement in bone mineral density.

-- Jeannine Stein

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