“If doctors could prescribe exercise in a pill form, it would be the single most widely prescribed drug in the world.” Founding Director of the National Institute on Aging, Robert Butler, MD
If you’re serious about maintaining strong and healthy bones throughout your life, exercise should move up on your list of priorities. But what type of exercise is best for bones? You may have heard that high intensity forms of exercise are good for bone-building. But it comes as a surprise to many people that mindful exercises like yoga or tai chi are also very helpful.
Let’s take a closer look at exercise and you determine what’s best for your bones — and your life.
Exercising for your bones — simple ideas to get you started
- Go dancing with a friend or partner.
- Take a walk each night after dinner or try wearing a pedometer during the day to track how much you walk.
- Ride your bike to friends’ houses, stores, and work.
- Run up and down your stairs a few times a day.
- Purchase or borrow a Nintendo Wii Fit program (includes dance parties, yoga, tennis games, boxing, and more).
- Jump rope or simply hop on one leg, then the other — or on both.
- Try resistance bands.
- Use an X-iser step machine for a few minutes a day.
- Use steppers, free weights, and other strength training devices at your local gym, or wear a weight vest or belt during your workout.
- Try a rebounder (mini-trampoline) and build your bones like the astronauts do.
If Your Bones Could Talk...
If your bones could talk, they would say, “Show me you really need me!” Though it feels and looks solid, living bone is dynamic tissue that is constantly altered in response to motion and movement. The more your bones are called upon to carry weight, the more your body puts its resources into building them to support that weight. Bone and muscle are part of the same unit, and as you build muscle, you build bone by default. Here’s why: muscles are attached to bones by tendons. When muscles contract, the tendons tug on your bones, stimulating them to grow. The stronger the muscle, the more powerful the stimulation on the bone.
From hopping on one or both legs during the commercial breaks of your favorite TV show to biking back and forth to work, there’s a way for you to make exercise a part of your life, and once your bones are called upon, their mass will increase.
What and How Much Exercise Builds Bone?
Regular, lifelong exercise is best for bone, but it’s never too late to begin building bone density with exercise. Your age, gender, current bone mass, and training history are all factors that will influence your choice of exercise for bone health.
The optimal exercise routines for men’s and women’s bone health is unknown and subject to much debate. But we do know that different forms of exercise benefit bone mineralisation and the mechanical properties of bone in different ways for men and women of different age groups.
Mix it up
Although consistent activity and minimising time sitting are important for bone health, your bones respond well to unusual, unexpected bursts and varying combinations of forces, rather than routine workouts. Here are some ideas to help you achieve this:
- Jump, skip or break into a jog when you wouldn’t normally.
- Vary your weight-lifting repetitions, mixing heavier weights than you’re used to with lighter ones.
- Include several bursts in your workout, where you increase your heart rate for a minute or so.
- If you always use the treadmill, try dancing or yoga exercises every other work-out
It's generally accepted that exercise that requires high forces or generates high impact on the body (such as gymnastics, dance, or weight-lifting) is best to improve bone density. The greater the force or impact, the more bone-growth stimulation. Scientific evidence does suggest we most efficiently build bone mass with a combination of high-impact exercise (such as jumping) and weight-lifting.
But other properties of bone besides mass make it resilient, such as its water content and cross-sectional geometry. That’s why non-weight-bearing or resistance exercise such as swimming, biking, and isometric exercise also have value, in that they can increase your bones’ flexibility and compression strength. Resistance exercise also decreases your risk of falling and fractures by enhancing balance, coordination, and muscle strength.
East meets West — osteoporosis and yoga, t’ai chi, qi gong, and Pilates
One way to increase the forces of resistance on your bones is with Eastern forms of exercise such as yoga, t’ai chi, or qi gong, and other alternative systems such as Pilates. We’re just now beginning to understand that the benefits we gain from such mind–body disciplines extend much further than simply strength and flexibility.
Practices like yoga and t’ai chi can improve balance, coordination, and focus — not to mention providing a boost in confidence! As we age, many of us become less confident when moving about, and while it’s good to be careful, hesitancy can make us more likely to fall and possibly fracture. And whether you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia or not, falling puts you at risk of fracture.
Several recent scientific studies document the positive effects of yoga on bone health in women of all ages. Results showed increased bone density in the spine and hips as measured by DEXA scans, as well as reduced markers of bone turnover.
In addition to the physical effects, there’s often a psychological benefit to Eastern practices. This can help enhance our natural mind-body connection and calm the autonomic nervous system, lowering adrenaline and cortisol, our primary stress hormones. These actions ultimately help bone and whole-body health.
Tips for Safe Exercise
- Consult your physician before starting any new exercise program.
- Exercise within your comfort zone.
- Avoid movements that cause pain.
- Maintain good posture and avoid rounding your back.
- Be sure to warm up and stretch your muscles.
- Work with a physical therapist if you have experienced an osteoporotic fracture.
- Some exercises aren’t recommended for those who have fractured or who have severe osteoporosis. Flexion exercises where you bend your spine significantly forward can increase the risk of vertebral fractures by putting excessive pressure on the vertebral bodies. Such exercises may include crunches where you round your back, touching your toes from a standing position, pulling your knees into your chest and lifting your chin and neck while on your back, or rounding your back over and downward while in a seated position. Extension exercises where you stretch up and flex backwards are generally safe for everyone.