Could a less sedentary lifestyle help beat osteoporosis?

The effects on osteoporosis of prolonged periods of sitting – and the potential impact of less sedentary behaviour – are being explored by researchers at the University of East Anglia.

Researchers will look at whether extended periods of sitting lead to increased bone loss, and whether breaking up sedentary behaviour has the opposite effect.    

Previous research has shown that prolonged sedentary behaviour could have an adverse effect on the hip bone mineral density of women.

The study is led by the University of Strathclyde and also involves Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Birmingham and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne.

The team hope that their findings will help inform and shape future public health policy and physical activity guidelines aimed at improving bone health.

Researchers at UEA will carry out analysis on bone biomarkers that show the biochemical changes that sedentary behaviour has on how quickly bone is broken down or formed (bone turnover). They will also investigate whether vitamin D deficiency contributes to accelerated bone loss.

Prof Bill Fraser, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We know that a sedentary lifestyle is not good for us, but we don’t yet know exactly how it causes bone loss and subsequent osteoporosis.

“This project will look at whether extended periods of sitting in a controlled laboratory setting effects the bone metabolism of older adults. It will also look at the effects of breaking periods of sitting with standing, and whether this could be better for us."

Jonathan Tang, also from Norwich Medical School, said: “We are very excited at the prospect of this study. We will use state of the art technology here at UEA to perform biomarker analysis on blood samples to detect early changes in the bone building cycle - before a bone density scan can indicate bone thinning.”

Dr Alexandra Mavroeidi, a Senior Lecturer in Physical Activity for Health in Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, is leading the study. She said: “We know that in extreme environments, such as total bed rest, bone loss is very high. In everyday life, long periods of immobility such as this are rare; however, sedentary lifestyles are commonplace in modern society, through transport, work and leisure.

“Studies have shown that self-reported sedentary behaviour throughout the day is as much as six to eight hours and this increases to eight to 10 hours in older adults. We were the first to show that this type of behaviour might have an adverse effect on women’s hip bone mineral density. We are now aiming to test this further.”

The study will use data and blood samples which have already been collected, but not analysed, in previous sedentary behaviour studies by the research group.

If the proof of concept study identifies a significant effect of sedentary behaviour on bone metabolism, promoting frequent breaks from sitting could be a possible, and simple, preventative intervention for osteoporosis in later life.

The research is being funded by the Royal Osteoporosis Society, previously the National Osteoporosis Society.

Prof Jon Tobias, professor of Rheumatology at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Society’s Research Grants Committee, said: “The Research Grants Committee had a difficult job in selecting a small proportion of successful projects among the large number of interesting and high quality applications that we received.

“This project will conduct pioneering research into the impact of extended periods of sitting on bone metabolism, and the benefits of breaking up sedentary behaviour through more frequent bouts of physical activity. This will help us to learn more about the mechanisms behind osteoporosis, and give us a better understanding of the relationship between lifestyle and bone health.”

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