A lean, fit individual who spends hours in the sunlight each week is hardly the image we generate in our mind of someone with bone issues. This seems to be the case though with two recent systematic reviews both finding that both recreational and elite cyclists appear to be at risk of low bone mass, particularly in their lumber spine. It appears that while cycling has much to offer cardiovascular health, long hours spent sitting in a supported position appear to have no benefit to bone health. What this means for any serious cyclist is that a bone health check and dietary review may be warranted, ASAP!
Osteoporosis affects more than one million Australians and a staggering 5.4 million Aussies have osteopenia, or low bone density which is a precursor to osteoporosis. Over time low bone density leads to weakness of the skeleton which leaves us with a significantly increased risk of bone fractures, particularly in the spine, hip and wrist. For any athlete or active individual this is not only a concern from a structural perspective but also in relation to potential injury side effects which are associated with falls and crashes.
While women are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis, a result of hormonal shifts as they age, men too lose bone mass as they age as testosterone gradually declines. There are a number of other risk factors for low bone density including a family history, smoking and a high intake of alcohol and importantly for athletes to be aware of, long term corticosteroid use, commonly used to manage inflammation.
While these statistics may be somewhat depressing, the good news is that in many cases osteoporosis can be prevented and bone health improved when three key lifestyle variables are targeted; 1) Optimal calcium intake 2) Adequate Vitamin D levels and 3) Regular weight bearing activities such as walking, resistance training or jogging. For active cyclists who spend much of their training time covering up and clocking up hours on the bike, this may mean a little more gym time, along with some more exposed skin is warranted.
Active adults require 1000mg of calcium every day and up to1300mg per day for women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70. While supplementation is an option, and one which may be prescribed for high risk individuals, obtaining calcium via whole foods is ideal, as a number of other complimentary nutrients will also be ingested via rich food source of calcium such as magnesium, Vitamin B12 and phosphorus.
Dairy foods including milk, yoghurt and cheese are the best sources of calcium; and for those who are at high risk of osteoporosis, calcium enriched dairy may be an even better choice. There are a number of high calcium milks and yoghurts now available at supermarkets, which means it can be easy to get all the calcium you need from just a couple of smart food choices each day. As a general rule of thumb 2-3 serves of calcium rich dairy will ensure you reach your calcium target on a daily basis.
If you cannot tolerate dairy food, make sure that the soy or nut milk alternatives that you choose have been fortified with calcium to ensure that you are not missing out completely. Soy based products such as tofu is another calcium rich option – if you like it! Unfortunately there are not many other foods with as much calcium as dairy and fortified soy products, but there are small amounts in tinned fish with bones, almonds and dark green vegetables including spinach and rocket.
Another important thing to be aware of is that a high intake of cola based drinks may put you at risk of lower bone mineral density. Studies have shown that a high intake of cola drinks; four to five times each week, may act to displace dairy rich foods from the diet, hence leaving the bones at higher risk of osteoporosis.
The right type of training
While dietary calcium intake is important, so too is the right type of exercise. Ideally the exercise will include options that place load on the skeleton to encourage bone formation and strengthening. This means for any cyclist training programs may need to be supplemented by 2-3 extra sessions of weight bearing activities. Good options include jogging or walking; team sports such as footy or specific resistance training in the gym. Not only does weight bearing activity support bone health, but also muscle strength and core stability which may also be of significant benefit to your cycling overall.