D IS FOR DEFICIENCY

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When you compare the grace and elegance of a ballet to the fast-paced, hard-hitting intensity of a rugby game, it can be difficult to believe that professional dancers are significantly more likely to suffer injuries than rugby players. Dance isn’t usually a contact or combative sport, and performers are not engaged in a competitive battle on stage. So why do they suffer such a high rate of injury? This is a question that the University’s Professor Matt Wyon first asked in 2008 and since then, his research has gone on to uncover that the answer is in fact a very simple one: Vitamin D – or rather, a lack of it.

Ballet Shoes - D is for Deficiency

The sunshine vitamin

Vitamin D is crucial for adequate bone and muscle health in any human body, and it is produced through exposure of the skin to the sun. This means athletes that train indoors, such as dancers, are vulnerable to Vitamin D deficiency, and as such are at greater risk of injury.

Professor Wyon, who heads up the Dance Science and Medicine Research Group at the University, is a leading expert in the field of dance science, as well as exercise physiologist for the Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet.

To test his theory, he monitored dancers’ Vitamin D levels over the course of a year during reduced and increased exposure to sunlight and then compared it to their bone metabolism to assess the subsequent impact on bone regeneration. The results unequivocally showed that reduced sunlight exposure, particularly during the winter months, did lead to low vitamin levels and that furthermore, these dancers also suffered a higher rate of injury during that time.

Professor Wyon says: “The first stage of the project allowed for a much more in-depth examination of the causes of injuries experienced by dancers, and the findings showed a clear link between low levels of Vitamin D and impaired exercise performance. This then paved the way for further investigation into preventative measures that would reduce the risk of injury from the outset.”

To determine the link further, the second stage of the project looked at whether the introduction of an oral Vitamin D supplement actually improved the dancers’ physical fitness and muscle function. Over a period of four months, dancers were given a daily dose of Vitamin D which not only resulted in significant increases in muscle strength but also a reduced injury rate.

The same positive effect was found on judo athletes – who similarly train indoors. In a separate study by Professor Wyon and his team, a group of 22 athletes were given either a Vitamin D supplement or a placebo and then tested twice, eight days apart, before training commenced and after two days of rest. The group who received the Vitamin D supplement demonstrated a significant increase in the vitamin level, and in turn an increase in muscle strength.

Prevention is better than cure

While the findings of the research may be considered unsurprising, the implications within the sporting and performing arts arena actually have a significant impact.

When you consider that performance is centric to athletes, and that they depend on being injury free to even compete, a daily Vitamin D supplement to help maintain strength and reduce risk of injury is not just a feasible preventative measure, it is an essential one.

Professor Wyon adds: “For athletes who train indoors, the value of this research is substantial – not only for professional athletes who need to safeguard their physical health, but also for amateur athletes, and less well-funded sports, that rely on prevention rather than cure due to limited access to expert treatment.”

Higher on the health agenda

It’s not just athletes who need to be aware of the effect of reduced sunlight exposure. The research raises questions about whether in fact any of us are getting enough Vitamin D in our daily lives to ensure sufficient bone health. 

Professor Wyon explains: “Even during the summer the average person in the UK does not get enough exposure to sunlight due to spending most of their daylight hours indoors either at work or at home. When we do venture into the sun we are advised to wear sunscreen to protect our skin against harmful UV rays. Of course this protection is important, but it is also preventing our bodies from producing a sufficient amount of Vitamin D.”

Indeed it is a growing concern within the healthcare profession with bone diseases such as osteoporosis on the rise, and now affecting younger as well as older people.

Professor Wyon concludes: “Increasing our Vitamin D intake as part of our normal daily routine needs to be higher on our agenda. A healthy diet can help to compensate for reduced sun exposure, but with modern day living and working drawing us ever more indoors, the role of vitamin supplements as part of this may well become progressively important.”

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