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Background: Periods of growth are thought to be the best time to increase bone mineral content, bone area, and areal bone mineral density (aBMD) through increased loading owing to high rates of bone modeling and remodeling. However, questions remain regarding whether a benefit of exercise is seen at all bone sites, is dependent on pubertal status or sex of the child, or whether other factors such as diet modify the response to exercise.

Questions/purposes: We asked: (1) Does bone-loading exercise in childhood consistently increase bone mineral content, bone area, or aBMD? (2) Do effects of exercise differ depending on pubertal status or sex? (3) Does calcium intake modify the bone response to exercise?

Methods: A literature search identified 22 unique trials for inclusion in this meta-analysis of the effect of exercise on bone changes by bone site, pubertal status, and sex. Sample sizes ranged from 16 to 410 subjects 3 to 18 years old with length of intervention ranging from 3 to 36 months. Fifteen of 22 trials were randomized (child randomized in nine, classroom/school randomized in six) and seven were observational trials. Ten trials were Level 2 and 11 were Level 3 based on the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine criteria. Random effects models tested the difference (intervention mean effect-control mean effect) in percent change in bone mineral content, bone area, and aBMD. Meta-regression was used to identify sources of heterogeneity and funnel plots were used to assess publication bias.

Results: Children assigned to exercise had greater mean percent changes in bone mineral content and aBMD than children assigned to the control groups. Mean differences (95% CI) in bone mineral content percent change between intervention and control groups at total body (0.8; 95% CI, 0.3-1.3; p = 0.003), femoral neck (1.5; 95% CI, 0.5-2.5; p = 0.003), and spine (1.7; 95% CI, 0.4-3.1; p = 0.01) were significant with no differences in bone area (all p > 0.05). There were greater percent changes in aBMD in intervention than control groups at the femoral neck (0.6; 95% CI, 0.2-1.1; p = 0.006) and spine (1.2; 95% CI, 0.6-1.8; p < 0.001). Benefit of exercise was limited to children who were prepubertal (bone mineral content: total body [0.9; 95% CI, 0.2-1.7; p = 0.01], femoral neck [1.8; 95% CI, 0.0-3.5; p = 0.047], spine [3.7; 95% CI, 0.8-6.6; p = 0.01], and aBMD: femoral neck [0.6; 95% CI, -0.1-1.2; p = 0.07], spine [1.5; 95% CI, 0.7-2.3; p < 0.001]), with no differences among children who were pubertal (all p > 0.05). Changes in aBMD did not differ by sex (all p > 0.05), although the number of studies providing male-specific results was small (six of 22 eligible studies included boys). There was significant heterogeneity in bone mineral content and bone area for which a source could not be identified. Heterogeneity in spine aBMD was reduced by including calcium intake and intervention length as covariates. Three trials designed to determine whether calcium intake modified the bone response to exercise all reported a greater effect of exercise on leg bone mineral content in children randomized to receive supplemental calcium than those receiving placebo.

Conclusions: Exercise interventions during childhood led to 0.6% to 1.7% greater annual increase in bone accrual, with effects predominantly among children who were prepubertal. If this effect were to persist into adulthood, it would have substantial implications for osteoporosis prevention. It is important to identify sources of heterogeneity among studies to determine factors that might influence the bone response to increased exercise during growth.

Level of Evidence: Level II, therapeutic study.

(C) 2015 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.