Nothing is guaranteed 100% to prevent osteoporosis; with so many factors involved in its development, there’s no silver bullet. But exercise is certainly a factor that can keep aging bones healthy and lower your risk of both osteopenia and osteoporosis. This quick guide examines the best exercises for gaining and maintaining good bone health.
Exercise, exercise, exercise…
Seems like exercise is being promoted as a way to prevent all kinds of health issues these days, from obesity to heart disease to breast cancer.
And it’s true: exercise DOES work to prevent many of the medical challenges we face, especially as we get older and naturally slow down a bit.
But exercise isn’t a cure-all; it needs to be paired with a nutritious diet; diagnostic screening when necessary, and all the other elements that comprise a healthy lifestyle.
And not all exercise is created equal; what works best for stroke prevention might not be very useful when you’re trying to maintain bone health to avoid osteoporosis.
So, what ARE the best exercises for osteoporosis prevention?
Weight-bearing exercises; and resistance exercises.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, weight-bearing exercises are those that “make you move against gravity while staying upright.”
So, wouldn’t just about everything be a weight-bearing exercise? After all, you’re usually upright and on your feet, supporting your body weight, while you move – right?
Maybe. Think about yoga and Pilates; there are many times when you’re lying flat on the mat, being supported by the floor. You’re stretching, which is good in a whole variety of ways; but it’s not the best exercise to strengthen bones.
And just because you’re on your feet, you’re not necessarily moving against gravity; standing in line at the grocery store doesn’t qualify as a weight-bearing exercise.
The best examples of weight-bearing exercises are vigorous sports involving running: soccer, basketball, and hockey come immediately to mind.
Still, not many of us pursue these team sports after high school. What else would be considered weight-bearing?
Pushups, pull-ups, jumping jacks, and jumping rope: Talk about resistance against gravity! Remember when these were part of every gym class? Maybe you can’t do them like you did when you were 15, but you can at least try. And the more you try, the better you’ll get at these most basic of all weight-bearing exercises.
Jogging: The pound-pound-pound of feet on pavement stresses your bones just enough that they continue to build themselves up. The right amount of stress is good for your bones – though, as you get older, you need to watch out for things like joint issues and stress fractures.
Hiking: While simply taking a stroll is minimally beneficial, hiking “up hill and down dale” is much more so. Think how hard it is to climb an uphill path; your muscles are working against gravity and, again, stressing your bones just the right amount.
Dancing: No, not a swaying slow dance – something wild and crazy. If you’re my age, you’ll think jitterbug. Any type of dance where you move fairly fast and at least bounce on the balls of your feet, if not leave the floor, is great for your bones.
Tennis: Ah, there’s a sport you might still be pursuing, right? The running, sudden stops, and turns are all muscle (and bone) builders.
Climbing stairs: Body supporting your weight? Check. Pushing against gravity? Check. Exercise doesn’t HAVE to involve taking time out of your regular routine; whether you’re at work, at the mall, or at a doctor’s appointment, try taking the stairs for at least part of any upper-story journey.
Resistance exercises are those where you’re not necessarily on your feet; but you’re still resisting gravity (or some other force) in some way, enough to tax your muscles and stress your bones. Let’s take a look at some common resistance exercises.
Bicycling: While not a weight-bearing exercise – the bike supports your body – cycling certainly involves resistance. Think of the pull of gravity as you pedal your bike uphill, or the legwork necessary to keep the bike moving forward, even on a flat surface.
Swimming: Water reduces the pull of gravity, but swimming involves pushing against resistance: the resistance of water as you move through it. Whether you’re taking an aqua-cize class or doing laps, swimming is a great resistance exercise.
Lifting weights: Free weights (dumbbells and barbells), and weight machines – think Nautilus, et. al. – are a very basic way to provide your muscles with a good workout against gravity. And the heavier the weight, the more resistance, the greater the effect on muscles, and consequently bones.
If you’ve never lifted weights, be sure to get instruction in proper techniques first; you don’t want to risk straining muscles, ligaments, or tendons by twisting the wrong way.
Resistance bands: Don’t have access to weights? Those colorful elastic resistance bands perform nearly the same function, albeit with a more limited number of ways to build bone, compared to lifting weights.
When should you start exercising to build or maintain your bones? Well, preferably before age 30; your bones will be at their maximum peak of density by age 30. After that, you’ll transition into maintenance mode, where the goal is to maintain what you’ve got for as long as possible.
And, assuming you’re over 30, maintenance is critical. The longer you can keep your bones healthy, via exercise and diet, the less chance you have of an osteoporosis diagnosis.
Note: The advice here is specifically for those with healthy bones, without evidence of osteoporosis or osteopenia. If you’ve been diagnosed with bone loss, please read Exercising With Osteoporosis: Be Safe, Be Effective.
Published On: September 11, 2011