Osteoporosis—which translates to “porous bone”—has been a condition that stumped doctors and researchers for centuries. Although doctors know much more today about what causes osteoporosis and how to prevent it, misinformation continues to circulate in the general public.
“We need to update our thinking on osteoporosis because there are still a lot of outdated thoughts,” says Joan Pagano, exercise physiologist in New York City.
The consequence of not understanding bone health is devastating: Half of American women and one in four men above the age of 50 will have a fracture caused by osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). Fractures at an old age can be immobilizing, isolating, and even fatal.
But preventing osteoporosis is possible, and understanding the role of exercise for your bone development can empower you to protect your bones’ integrity. Here are four misconceptions about exercising with osteoporosis that are holding you back from achieving your best bone health.
MYTH: All types of exercise helps prevent osteoporosis.
First things first: Just about any type of exercise is beneficial for your body in some way (as long as it’s the appropriate intensity level for you). That said, specific types of exercise are better for you than others when it comes to keeping bones strong.
Many people prefer walking, swimming, and biking, assuming the low-impact exercises will be protective of the bones. That’s a myth, according to Pagano.
“They’re not the best exercises because you need to do weight-bearing cardio,” says Pagano. “If you are in the water, your weight is supported by the buoyancy of the water. If you’re sitting on a bicycle, your weight is supported by a bicycle seat.”
Weight-bearing or “bone-loading” exercises are the best way to impact your bone mineral density, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation. These types of workouts apply more force on specific bones and muscles than they would normally carry in daily activities. Examples include weight machines or using resistance bands.
If you like walking, swimming, and biking, good news: They’re still effective “if you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis [and can help] reduce your risk of fractures and falling,” says Pagano. Furthermore, these cardio exercises can lower your risk of heart disease, which increases as you age.
MYTH: If osteoporosis runs in your family, there’s “nothing you can do about it.”
Osteoporosis *can* be prevented, and it’s a lifelong endeavor. “Activity and nutrition during childhood and adolescence can be a very powerful factor in reducing your risk of osteoporosis later in life,” says Pagano.
The truth is, bone mineral density is primarily developed during your childhood and teenage years. During this time, new bone tissue is added faster than old bone tissue is withdrawn, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. That changes by age 30.
To make the most of childhood bone development, parents should encourage their kids to do high-impact exercise and eat plenty of bone-boosting foods.
MYTH: Exercise can compensate for low-calcium intake.
Different researchers may debate over which factor—exercise or calcium intake—is more important to bones, but your best bet is to do both. One without the other will never provide your best bone health.
“Both exercise and calcium are the cornerstone of building healthy bones,” says Pagano. “They affect the body differently and have different benefits.”
When you exercise, you’re stimulating the bones to produce new tissue. You can see evidence of this by looking at baseball players. A 2014 study from researchers at Indiana University revealed that bone density and strength were significantly greater in the players’ throwing arm than non-throwing arm, even if they had stopped playing baseball years ago.
Calcium, on the other hand, helps the body mineralize bone tissue, helping it become harder and stronger. Your body houses 99 percent of its calcium stores in the skeleton, and eating plenty of high-calcium foods can help the body get enough. (And don’t forget vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium.)
MYTH: You shouldn’t exercise if you have osteoporosis.
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, your intuition may think, “My bones are fragile, so I should avoid physical activity to prevent a fracture.”
It’s a logical thought, but in reality, keeping your bones active is the best approach to prevent falls and fractures. Exercise with osteoporosis only modestly affects your bone mineral density, but it has a huge effect on strength, flexibility, and balance—all of which keep you upright and sturdy.
“We don’t want to have a debilitating fracture that could be a life-changing experiencing, especially at an older age,” says Pagano.
Fractures are serious: About 20 percent of seniors who suffer a hip fracture die within one year, according to NOF. Death by hip fracture is usually caused by complications of the broken bone or the resulting surgery.
But you’re right that some precaution is necessary. “It’s important to exercise with osteoporosis,” says Pagano, “but you do need to be educated on what safe modifications you can make so that you continue to benefit.”
Try it out with these tips: