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Leigh Gabel’s love of sports and exercise began with her involvement in youth sports, an interest that ultimately shaped her research into the impact of exercise on children’s bone health.
Gabel’s interest in bone health stems from the skeleton’s distinctive ability to remember past movements. “Bones adapt to how they are loaded. Like an autobiography, our skeletons carry a lifetime of loading history,” says Dr. Gabel, PhD, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. “For example, we know that gymnasts, tennis players, and baseball pitchers develop unique skeletal adaptations during their youth that persist into adulthood.”
With her interest in skeletal adaptations, Gabel leads research on optimizing bone development and musculoskeletal (MSK) health across the lifespan, focusing on how exercise and loading such as resistance training influence bone health, especially in teenagers and astronauts.
Develop strong bones for life
“Childhood and adolescence are critical periods for skeletal development. You gain more bone mass in just a few years during adolescence than you will ever lose later in life,” says Gabel. “So it’s important to establish healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as nutrition and physical activity, at a young age to optimize bone health for life.”
While working on her doctorate in experimental medicine at the University of British Columbia, she collected data using a large longitudinal study, measuring children’s daily movement behaviors with accelerometers. Using high-resolution imaging, the research team analyzed the relationships between physical activity and changes in bone structure and strength. The results revealed that children who were active and engaged in vigorous physical activity frequently throughout the day had stronger bones.
How to optimize bone development
Gabel uses research data from his thesis to initiate a study on the influence of physical activity load patterns on skeletal development in healthy young people. She hopes to extend her research to different populations to understand how to optimize bone development in young people living with chronic diseases, including children with neuromuscular diseases.
“Many chronic diseases are associated with poor bone health, primarily due to reduced physical activity and mobility. In these cohorts, the focus is on preventing fractures and building a healthy skeleton, as a fracture can significantly reduce mobility and quality of life,” says Gabel.
With research focused on bone development in adolescence, Gabel sees an opportunity to impact bone health throughout life. “Studying bone development in different populations offers a unique opportunity to understand the impacts of healthy behaviors, like daily exercise, that can help build and maintain strong bones,” she says.
Bone adaptations in microgravity
Adolescence isn’t the only time when bones adapt to a wildly changing environment – the effects of microgravity and weightlessness in space lead to rapid changes in astronauts’ bones.
While completing his postdoctoral fellowship, Gabel participated in the TBone study, led by Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD, director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, at the Bone Lab in collaboration with the Space Agency Canadian and NASA, which investigated the impacts of microgravity on bones. Their recent study measured the effects of pre-flight and in-flight exercise on bone loss in astronauts. The team used 3D imaging from peripheral high-resolution quantitative CT scans to assess bone structure and strength before the flight and after returning from space. The results revealed that bone loss progresses with the duration of a space mission despite daily exercise programs designed to prevent bone loss.
The next stage of the Tbone study is underway with the integration of multiple international studies. “TBone2 focuses on even longer duration space missions (one year) and puts more emphasis on how the bone recovers. With the collaboration of several studies, the next step will provide insight into how different body systems change and influence each other during a space mission,” says Gabel.