Exercise for Bone Health: Part One, Older Age

Lila de Tantillo Health Guide
  • About four times a week, Marilyn Hoder-Salmon, 73, heads to the gym. She stays about an hour at a time, and her workout includes stretching, lifting 8 lb. free weights and using either stationary bicycle or the treadmill. She's been following this routine for about six years.


    "If I don't make it for a few days, I feel stiff," says Marilyn, who credits her workouts with allowing her to hold her own in play-wrestling matches with her 9-year-old grandson. "Exercise is not my favorite thing to do, but I'm committed to it because I see that it's helping me stay strong."


    A DXA scan several years ago indicated that Marilyn doesn't have any significant bone loss for her age, and she intends to keep it that way. Just as important, she works out to maintain the balance and flexibility that could help prevent a bad fall.

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    A 2003 report by Michel Hewitt, Ph.D. - the research director for exercise science and exercise physiology at Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tucson, Ariz. - for the International Longevity Center USA described the importance of exercise for averting not only osteoporosis, but also sarcopenia, the loss of lean body mass and strength with aging. Dr. Hewitt's research concluded that this phenomenon, while closely linked to osteoporosis, is itself also responsible for limiting an older person's mobility, independence and overall quality of life.


    "If there's not as much muscle, then there's not as much force applied to the bone," to keep it strong, points out Dr. Hewitt. "If the concern is sustaining a fall and a fracture, then muscle mass is also important. By improving strength we can catch ourselves when we fall into an unstable position."


    The key is exercise. Of course, if you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia - or worse still, have actually broken a bone - working out may be the furthest thing from your mind. Perhaps you are concerned that exercise could put you in further danger of a fracture. However, the potential benefits of exercise make it well worth discussing with your doctor what kind of weight bearing activities may be suitable to help you protect your delicate bones.


    For example, social dancing is a great option for women because it provides the security of a partner to hold on to. In addition, some of the moves can help foster balance and agility. Tai chi, Dr. Hewitt notes, may be another good option for those with low bone mass. In addition, many weight bearing exercises can be conducted in such a way as to enhance safety and diminish the possibility of an accidental fracture. For example, walking up and down a narrow hallway can be reassuring for the person afraid of losing equilibrium. Even most exercises with a balance ball can be conducted in the corner of a room for additional stability.


    Dr. Hewitt points to a study that demonstrated that individuals in their 90s gained strength from using resistance weights on their arms and legs. "It is possible to build muscle mass at any age," he says. "It's never too late to see a positive effect."

Published On: January 10, 2008