Osteoporosis Prevention: Not All Exercise Is Created Equal

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • I’m a breast cancer survivor, and thus am able to take advantage of a new medical initiative that’s sweeping across the country: survivorship. Survivorship clinics are being established in both major and not-so-major hospitals and cancer centers. Medical students are being introduced to cancer survivorship issues, and med. schools are beginning to consider it a field of study worthy of a specialty degree.

    Not surprising. There are nearly 12 million cancer survivors in the United States, and the number is growing every day. That’s certainly enough critical mass to warrant some attention from the medical establishment. And that statistic spurred the foundation, last June, of a survivorship clinic at our local cancer center.

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    I visit my oncologist every 6 months. He pokes, prods, palpates, asks questions, and does everything he can to make sure my cancer hasn’t come out of hiding. Last November, the doc told me that I was heading towards osteopenia, due mainly to the anti-cancer drugs I take every day. His advice? “More vitamin D.”

    Well, OK... I upped my vitamin D, but wondered if I was doing enough. (Or was I doing too much? Doesn’t vitamin D have a toxicity level?) As an osteo-neophyte, I thought osteoporosis was an “old-lady” disease. I remembered my grandmother-in-law, hunched and bent at an angle acute enough to make looking straight ahead a challenge… and looking up nearly impossible.

    “I don’t want to look like a little old lady,” I thought to myself. “I don’t want too feel like one, either. But… my oncologist told me what to do: take vitamin D. I feel disloyal questioning him.” I simmered in a stew of indecision for over 6 months; inertia kept me on a double dose of vitamin D, but that was it, as far as proactively addressing my thinning bones.

    And then, the survivorship clinic. “What if we opened a clinic… and no one came?” The concept was so new that at first, the clinic had very few patients. Being the good doobie that I am, I thought I’d give them some business. Plus, you know how it is; how often are you able to get a medical appointment without a wait of several weeks (or months)?

    Hmmm… which of these specialists shall I see? A physical therapist, nutritionist, psychologist, sleep specialist… Ooooh! A bone specialist. Just the ticket; I’ll find out what I REALLY should be doing about my bones. I made an appointment for the following week.

    And thus began my journey into a brand new medical challenge. Bone–specialist Beth looked at my chart, asked me some questions, and quickly got past the first treatment for thinning bones: lifestyle changes. “Unless you were born in Wisconsin and grew up on a heavy diet of dairy products, you probably aren’t getting enough calcium,” Beth started. “I was born in Wisconsin and love dairy products. I doubt a day goes by when I don’t drink at least three glasses of skim milk, and snack regularly on low-fat cheese,” I told her.

    “Then, there’s exercise,” she continued. Before she could get too far, I outlined my schedule for her: Exercise every morning at 4:30 a.m. The elliptical machine at the gym. Weight-lifting, 2 to 3 times a week. Cycling. If nothing else, a daily 3-mile walk. Check.


  • “Ah-HA!” Beth exclaimed, finally able to stop me in my tracks. “Cycling. Not a weight-bearing exercise. You need to concentrate on weight-bearing exercises.” Like, weight-lifting? I do that. “Not just weight-lifting,” Beth continued. “Weight-BEARING. Exercises where your bones bear the weight of your body.”

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    Huh? Don’t my bones always bear the weight of my body? Apparently not. Cycling doesn’t qualify. Nor does swimming (goodbye, water aerobics…) Walking is OK, but not the best. So, am I limited to churning out the miles on that darned boring elliptical machine every day? I decided I’d better look into this weight-bearing exercise thing.

    And what I discovered confused me more than ever. Until, after much research, it began to make sense. Next time, I’ll tell you what I discovered about weight-bearing exercises: which ones are best for bone strength, and at the same time appropriate for a 55-year-old who’s not about to pull a Michael Jordan and join a basketball league, nor don the ice hockey gear she shed 35 years ago.

Published On: September 03, 2008