When it comes to exercise and bone health, either move it or lose it.
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, adding exercise to your treatment regimen may seem a little daunting—and counterintuitive. You may be thinking: If my bones are fragile, shouldn’t I be *avoiding* physical activity?
In fact, the opposite is true. Exercise is crucial for both treating and preventing osteoporosis, a condition where the body loses too much or makes too little bone tissue.
Even though exercise with osteoporosis only modestly affects your bone mineral density, it has a huge effect on strength, flexibility, and balance—all of which keep you upright and sturdy. This can help prevent falls and potentially life-threatening fractures.
To understand how physical activity treats and prevents osteoporosis, we’ll first need to take a dive into the inner workings of your bones.
How Your Bones Work
Despite their ghoulish reputation, bones are actually a living tissue. Like many bodily processes, your bones continually renew themselves throughout your life, which keeps them—and you—strong and healthy.
Your bones are made of a calcium mineral, which makes them hard and white. This calcium mineral is embedded in a protein mesh of collagen, which makes the bones slightly flexible. If you cut a bone in half, you’d see that it’s not solid throughout. Bones have a solid outer layer, but look like a honeycomb inside. This makes them strong without being too heavy.
This honeycomb inside your bones is lined with bone cells. These cells renew the bone tissue in a cycle of breaking down and rebuilding, called bone remodeling. Bone remodeling ensures that older bone is replace with new, healthy bone, and damaged areas are repaired. Bone remodeling also allows your bones to get stronger in response to an increased load, a.k.a. exercise.
Exercising for bone health is much like exercising for muscle strength. To build muscle and get stronger, you need to do strength-training exercises. If you don’t work your muscles, they’ll become weaker. So, if you don’t exercise, both your bone health and muscle strength can deteriorate.
Exercises That Boost Bone Health
Even though just about any type of exercise is beneficial for your body in some way, it’s a myth that all types of exercise are good for preventing and treating osteoporosis. (Here are more osteoporosis exercise myths to be aware of.)
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, there are two types of exercise that build and maintain strength and bone density: weight-bearing exercises and muscle-strengthening exercises.
Weight-bearing exercises are activities where you move against gravity. These include:
- Stair climbing
- Or high-impact aerobics.
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, you may need to avoid high-impact weight-bearing exercises. If you’re unable to do high-impact exercises, low-impact weight-bearing exercises may be a safe and effective way to keep bones healthy. (Always check with your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program.) These include:
- Using an elliptical machine
- Using a stair-climbing machine
- Fast walking
Muscle-strengthening exercises (also known as bodyweight exercises) are when you use your body or a weight as resistance against gravity. These include:
- Lifting weights
- Using resistance bands
- Or doing exercises such as push-ups or squats.
Exercise is undoubtedly important in keeping bones healthy, but still, some precaution is necessary. “It’s important to exercise with osteoporosis, but you do need to be educated on what safe modifications you can make so that you continue to benefit,” says Pagano.
Try it out with these tips:
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Exercise is one of the most important
things you can do to prevent and
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to treat osteoporosis.
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When you exercise,
you exert a kind of stress on the bone,
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a healthy stress that makes
the bone get stronger.
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Exercise stimulates bone formation
by creating a pull on the bone.
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So when you work a muscle,
it actually creates a little pull,
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it deforms the bone slightly,
which makes the bone get stronger.
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If you don't exercise regularly,
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you notice that your muscles
get weaker and softer.
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And the same thing happens to the bones,
they get weaker and thinner.
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But you don't notice that it's happening,
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because it's a silent disease that
is happening inside your body.
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And the first sign that you may have it,
it could be a fracture.
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So they are two kinds of exercise
that you need to be aware of,
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one is weight-bearing cardio.
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Weight-bearing means that you are actually
bearing your body weight against the force
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So anytime you are on your feet,
you are resisting the force of gravity so
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that you don't fall down.
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As opposed to sitting on a bicycle,
which is weight-supported, or swimming,
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which is also supported by
the buoyancy of the water.
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A healthy exercise routine for
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osteoporosis is weight-bearing
exercise and resistance training.
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You need to target all the major
muscle groups of the body with
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a strength-training program.
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The largest are the legs, the glutes, the
quads, the hamstrings and the lower body.
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The back muscles,
the chest muscles, the shoulders,
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the core and then your lower legs as well.
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So you choose exercises that
target all of those muscle groups,
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so that they will stimulate bone
development throughout the skeleton.
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If you've been diagnosed with
osteoporosis, it's really important to be
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able to understand what areas of your body
have been affected, because that will
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inform an exercise program and the
selection of exercises that we will do.
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If you have osteoporosis and you
are working too hard, you’re working at
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a higher level of intensity, or
you're doing high impact exercise,
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creating a jarring effect to the skeleton,
you can actually injure your bones.
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It's very important that you know how to
modify exercise to make them safe for
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Definitely, it's never too late to start
exercising and you can offset bone loss
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and maintain any bone that you have,
by doing weight-bearing cardio and
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resistance training, appropriate for
your level of bone density.
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Invest in your bones. International Osteoporosis Foundation. (Accessed on January 22, 2019 at https://www.iofbonehealth.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/WOD%20Reports/move_it_or_lose_it_en.pdf)
Osteoporosis Exercise for Strong Bones. National Osteoporosis Foundation. (Accessed on January 22, 2019 at https://www.nof.org/patients/fracturesfall-prevention/exercisesafe-movement/osteoporosis-exercise-for-strong-bones)