We are often so focused on what exercise can take away from our bodies (such as excess calories and fat) that it’s easy to overlook some of the really valuable benefits that regular physical activity brings in terms of enhanced health, well being and quality of life. Shifting your focus towards building your body up with workouts that bring life-enhancing benefits such as improved health, vitality, reduced risk of disease and overall longevity, may make it easier to find the motivation to get moving on a regular basis. And one incredibly beneficial result that exercise can bring is improved bone health.
You know that working out can build strong muscles, but did you know that it can also build strong bones? Read on to learn more about the best types of bone-strengthening exercises.
Bones, Osteopenia and Osteoporosis
First, let’s talk about bones and the differences between osteopenia and osteoporosis. In addition to protecting our organs and providing structure to our body, our bones give support to our muscles, create blood cells and store calcium and other important minerals. Although we tend to think about our bones as static structures, they’re actually living tissue. That means our bodies constantly make new bone and break down old bone.
Up until approximately age 30, our bone mass—the ratio of new to old bone—increases. Past that point, we don’t produce new bone as quickly as we once did, and so we begin to slowly lose bone mass. That’s perfectly normal—but when the ratio of new bone to old bone is too low, our bones become weak, which is a condition called osteopenia. In more severe cases, a decrease in bone mass results in osteoporosis, a painful disease that can limit mobility, affect posture and increase the risk of fractures.
Osteoporosis is quite common in women 50 and older, and it’s estimated that approximately 50% of women in this age group will break a bone because of the disease. (If you’re not yet 50, don’t tune out! Bone loss can start as young as 20 years old, so prioritizing bone health at any age is important.)
As you might imagine, there are all sorts of risk factors for developing osteopenia and osteoporosis—many of which have to do with our lifestyle. The great news is that regular physical activity can strengthen our bones—and may even reverse bone loss over time.
Three Bone Strengthening Exercises
Before starting any exercise program, talk with your doctor to get professional advice on what movements to avoid or focus on based on your body’s specific needs. This is particularly important if you’ve already been diagnosed with osteoporosis. Depending on the degree of bone density loss you have, you may need to avoid higher-impact movements or too much twisting or forward flexion of your spine. If you’re an osteopenia patient, you may be able to engage in most physical activity—with your doctor’s approval.
Improve bone mass with strength training.
Strength training (also referred to as resistance training, or resistance exercise (RE), involves lifting or pulling against any type of resistance: dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, elastic workout bands, even your own body weight (doing a pull-up, for example).
In short, RE makes whatever you’re doing just a bit tougher. And, according to research, RE can make your bones tougher, too:
“RE, either alone or in combination with other interventions, may be the most optimal strategy to improve … bone mass in postmenopausal women …or even the older population.”
“Physical activity, particularly weight-bearing exercise [RE], is thought to provide the mechanical stimuli or ‘loading’ important for the maintenance and improvement of bone health…”
“…the potential benefits of adding resistance training to an exercise regimen, especially for the elderly … may include increased bone mineral density … For the elderly, these benefits of resistance training may, more importantly, result in additional advantages such as increased independence and decreased risk of falls and injuries.”
Improve overall bone health with cardio workouts.
While it’s true that high-impact exercises such as aerobics and jogging are good for bone strengthening, any weight-bearing exercise (or anything that forces you to work against gravity) offers bone benefits. Walking, hiking and dancing are perfect examples of low-impact activities that can boost our cardiovascular health and improve our bone health.
So why not just take a brisk walk every day and call it good? Because studies show cardio-only workouts may not be enough on their own. To ensure we maximize the bone-strengthening benefits of exercise, it’s important to have a well-rounded plan that also includes resistance training.
Strengthen your bones with yoga and flexibility-based exercise.
Studies show practicing yoga for as few as eight minutes a day may improve bone density, and yoga is “surprisingly protective” against fractures and osteoporosis. Dr. Loren Fishman, a Columbia University Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) physician, describes the bone-health benefits of yoga in a recent Yoga Journal article: “Poses that require one muscle group to work in opposition to another potentially stimulate bone growth. Yoga may slow—or even reverse—the bone-weakening that naturally results from decreased estrogen and progesterone as women age. By improving stability and agility, yoga helps prevent falls and fractures.”
Also, while most bone-building activities focus on strengthening our legs (like walking and hiking), yoga requires balancing weight using our arms, shoulder and core muscles. And according to Lori Rubenstein Fazzio, clinical director of the Yoga Therapy Rx Practicum at Loyola Marymount University, “… when you build muscle, you build bone.”
Again, it’s critical to talk with your doctor before undertaking any new physical activity—particularly if you’ve been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis. Yoga is a gentle practice, but that doesn’t mean every pose is effective—or safe—for every person.
Regular exercise is not only good for your body; it’s great for your bones too. In particular, weight-bearing, strength training exercise has the most proven bone-strengthening benefits, and it’s important to follow a balanced workout plan that includes a variety of training for maximum benefit.
Take Action: Consult with your doctor about the best plan of action for your body, taking note of any specific movements or forms of exercise you should avoid. Then, commit to a regular plan of action that incorporates weekly strength training, cardiovascular and flexibility work—such as our Walk Strong System. Turn your workout time into an investment that your future self will thank you for!
This content is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Be sure to consult with your physician or other health care provider with questions about your fitness goals.