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Exercise or nutrition — which is best for bone health?

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Athletic performance depends on the strength of your bones and muscles. Strong bones also protect against osteoporosis.

But which has a bigger impact on bone strength — what you eat, or the exercise you do?

US researchers sought to answer this question by looking at mineral supplementation and exercise in mice.

The results were surprising: nutrition has a greater impact on bone mass and strength than exercise. What’s more, even after exercise training stopped, the mice retained bone strength gains as long as they ate a mineral-supplemented diet.

“The longer-term mineral-supplemented diet leads to not only increases in bone mass and strength, but the ability to maintain those increases even after detraining,” said David Kohn, a University of Michigan professor in the schools of dentistry and engineering. “This was done in mice, but if you think about the progression to humans, diet is easier for someone to carry on as they get older and stop exercising, rather than the continuation of exercise itself.”

Both calcium and phosphorous were increased in the diet and the researchers found benefits to increasing both, although they noted that the findings don’t translate directly from mice to humans.

Interestingly, the study also showed that diet alone has beneficial effects on bone, even without exercising. Kohn had expected exercise with a normal diet to fuel greater gains in bone strength.

“The data suggests the long-term consumption of the mineral-supplemented diet could be beneficial in preventing the loss of bone and strength with age, even if you don’t do exercise training,” he said.

However, combining the two amplifies the effect.

The findings have been published in the journal PLOS One.