Certain sports promote stronger skeletons in kids, study finds

A University of Indiana study found that young “unidirectional athletes,” such as swimmers and runners, have a higher risk of bone-related injuries than those who pursue multidirectional sports, like football and basketball. (File photo courtesy of Northern Arizona Athletics)

LOS ANGELES – Young athletes develop more robust skeletons playing multidirectional sports, such as soccer and basketball, than unidirectional sports, like track, according to a study by the University of Indiana.

The study found that female multidirectional athletes who delay specializing in a unidirectional sport have a better chance of building thicker bone structure and avoiding such bone-stress injuries as stress reactions and fractures as adults.

“Our research shows that the runners who played multidirectional sports when younger had stronger bones as collegiate athletes, which puts them at less risk for bone stress injuries including stress fractures,” said Stuart Warden, associate dean for research in the IU School of Health and Human Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, in a statement.

The study was published in the December issue of the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, a journal from the American College of Sports Medicine.

The study compared two sample groups of female athletes. One was composed of those who competed in unidirectional sports, such cross country, recreational running/jogging, swimming and/or cycling. The other was comprised of athletes who competed in the same sports but also had trained or competed in multidirectional sports.

As youth sports became more competitive, the study said, more young athletes specialized in a particular sport at a younger age to keep up with the competition, but that might not be the best route.

“There is a common misperception that kids need to specialize in a single sport to succeed at higher levels,” said Warden,the primary researcher. “However, recent data indicate that athletes who specialize at a young age are at a greater risk of an overuse injury and are less likely to progress to higher levels of competition.”

The study concluded that athletes who played basketball or soccer as kids have less risk of injury when competing in unidirectional sports at the collegiate level. Athletes who played unidirectional sports, never specialized and continued playing multidirectional sports have thicker bones in their legs and knees.

“Our data shows that playing multidirectional sports when younger versus specializing in one sport, such as running, decreased a person’s bone injury risk by developing a bigger, stronger skeleton,” Warden said.

Researchers “want to ensure people have better, stronger bones as they grow, become adolescents and go through life,” he said.“Specializing in one sport at too young of an age means they are more likely to get injured and not make it at the collegiate and professional levels.”

According to a study published by the Journal of Athletic Training in July 2021, the overall injury rate for female track athletes was 2.20 per 1,000 athletes in the 2014-2015 to 2018-2019 academic years. It found that most of the injuries came from overuse or through non-contact activities.

With the publication of the Indiana study head coaches, athletic trainers, and strength coaches around the nation could change their recommendations for athletes that take part in unidirectional sports.

Shayan Moghangard shy-awn mo-gahn-guard (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Los Angeles

Shayan Moghangard expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports broadcast journalism. Moghangard has interned as an editor with Fox Sports Radio in California and works at Central Sound at Arizona PBS.