The research compared the shape and strength of the bones of sportspeople and active exercisers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). For example, triple jump, squash and football strengthen the bones more than weightlifting because they all include to a large extent repetitive exercise elements that involve strong vibrations.
Movements involving repeated vibrations are one reason why long-distance runners and high jumpers have stronger bones than the average active exerciser. In particular, the femoral neck (part of the thigh bone), which among older people is easily fractured, can be strengthened by engaging in any sport involving vibrating movements.
This study was carried out at the University of Oulu by Archaeologist Sirpa Niinimäki (PhD) together with an interdisciplinary and international research team. Niinimäki makes the following observation on the difference in perspective between medicine and archaeology: “In medicine, they study the question of what kind of exercise produces the strongest bones. The archaeologist, on the other hand, seeks to find out what kind of exercise leads to variations in bone shape and strength.”
According to Niinimäki, this study shows the importance of interdisciplinarity: the results are beneficial for both the medical and archaeological fields and were obtained by taking an approach where forms of movement were considered from both the medical and the archaeological perspective.
The archaeologists’ research material comprised magnetic resonance images of the hip and upper thigh areas of 91 sportswomen engaged in different sports and 21 women engaged in regular exercise.
Triple jump, squash and football are effective sports
The research involved three studies, of which the first examined variations in the size of the gluteus maximus for those engaged in different sports in comparison to active exercisers. The gluteus maximus of weightlifters was larger than that of active exercisers. The study also found that sports involving strong vibrations as well as those involving both vibrations and rapid changes of direction both correlated with larger gluteus maximus muscles.
The cross-sectional area of the gluteus maximus of long-distance runners and swimmers did not differ from that of active exercisers. The size of the gluteus maximus is of evolutionary significance for bipedal movement, because the evolution of upright walking is connected with increased gluteus maximus size.
The question, however, has been whether people are created for walking or running. The research results support the view that humans are designed for running, though more for sprinting than for long-distance running.
The research also investigated variations in the cross-sectional strength of the femoral shaft for people engaged in different sports. The strongest thigh bones were found to belong to those engaged in sports involving strong vibrations, such as the high jump, as well as those practising sports that strain the bones from many different angles, such as squash and football. Long-distance running and weight lifting also strengthened the bones better than normal regular exercise.
The research indicated that the types of sport and exercise elements that correlated with larger muscle size (compared to effective exercisers) were almost the same as those that correlated with stronger thigh bones.
The research also investigated the contribution of muscle size and vibrations to the strengthening of the bones. In this area, the most important observation was the significance for bone strength of sports involving strong vibrations: once the impact of weightlifters’ muscle size on their bone strength had been taken into account, the remaining bone strength component was no larger than that of active exercisers.
In addition to the University of Oulu, other participants in the research included the University of Tampere, the University of Jyväskylä, the Centre for Health Promotion Research, the University of Bordeaux and the PACEA Research Unit (France).
The research was published in the American Journal of Human Biology.
Last updated: 19.6.2019