Science reporting fail: Bone density study interpretation

MaleSkeletonsittingA recent report by the New York Times says “Exercise is Not the Path to Strong Bones“. But when you read a little further it becomes clear that the reporter has taken a particular data point and extrapolated to an incorrect conclusion.

The reporter says “Those studies failed to find anything more than a minuscule exercise effect — on the order of 1 percent or less, which is too small to be clinically significant”.

So, is 1% significant or not?

Clearly, bone density is is an important measure of health. Weak bones lead to all sorts of complications as we get older including osteoporosis.

But if exercise only improves bone destiny by 1% can it make a difference?

The answer, according to the New York Times is no.

So let’s add another data point. Bone density loss is a steady process that occurs as we age. For example, this report says:

The rate constants for this first-order loss are the same for men and women but differ with the type of bone, being 3%/decade for cortical bone and 7–11%/decade for trabecular bone.

So, does the assertion that 1% is not significant still stack up?

I don’t think so.

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