Exercising for stronger bones

Osteoporosis, also known as thinning bones, can result in painful and easy to find fractures and breaks. Aging, being female, low body weight, smoking, some medications, and other factors can all increase your risk for developing osteoporosis. Prevention and treatment can include calcium supplements, vitamin D, and exercise. Today, we're going to focus mostly on exercise. 


To begin, weight training exercises can help protect your bones from osteoporosis. Studies show that strength training over a period of time can help prevent bone loss, and can even build up new bone. 


In one study, postmenopausal women who participated in a strength training program for a year saw significant increases in their bone density in the spine and hips, areas affected most by osteoporosis in older women.


Maintaining strength and weight training helps keep up your balance and coordination as well, which is key to preventing falls that tend to lead to osteoporosis related fractures.


"We lose so much muscle as we age that by the time we're 70, we only have about 50% to 55% of our muscle mass left," says Beatrice Edwards, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine and director of the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "That explains why we feel weak and tired as we age, and we can prevent some of that with weight training."

How should you start weight training for osteoporosis? Focus on the back and the hip, says Don Lein, MS, PT, a physical therapist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham's Spain Rehabilitation Center and its Osteoporosis Prevention and Treatment Clinic. Those are the areas most damaged by bone loss, and the areas most at risk from osteoporosis-related fractures.

"Good exercises include hip extension, hip abduction and abduction, and hip flexion -- anything that works around the hip," he says. "Backward bending is also good."

One workout he recommends is to sit on a bench or chair with a five pound weight strapped with each ankle. Then "march" in place, lifting one leg, and then the other. "You're working the hip flexor muscles, which are attached to both the back and hip, which leads to improved bone and muscle mass in both areas," explains Lein.


There are a few things to keep in mind when you start weight training, though. Such as making sure you work under the supervision of a qualified, certified personal trainer; especially when you're just starting off or you have any medical issues. And make sure you do strength training two or three times a week, with at least a day of rest between each session. 


Do at least one exercise for each major muscle group, for a total of eight to twelve different exercises. One or two sets of eight to ten reps for each exercise is recommended. Lift the weight slowly; lift to a count of four and lower to a count of four, says Lein. "This decreases the likelihood of injury while helping to recruit the muscle better."


Don't compensate a weakness with other muscle groups. Make sure you're only working the muscle group that you're targeting during the workout. And as you lift, keep your abs tight to protect the spine. And always consult with your trainer when a weight feels to little, and slowly increase the amount. 

Another kind of workout you can try is tai chi. Tai chi is a form of slow, graceful moves; focused on building coordination and strong bones. A study reported in Physician and Sports medicine found that tai chi could slow bone loss in postmenopausal women. The women, who did 45 minutes of tai chi a day, five days a week for a year, enjoyed a rate of bone loss up to three-and-a-half times slower than the non-tai-chi group. Their bone health gains showed up on bone mineral density tests.


This next one should be pretty obvious, since it seems to have no limit to the benefits it provides to the human body; yoga. A study reported in Yoga Journal found an increase in bone mineral density in the spine for women who did yoga regularly. From the slow, precise Iyengar style to the athletic, vigorous ashtanga, yoga can build bone health in your hips, spine, and wrists -- the bones most vulnerable to fracture. 


Standing poses in yoga work the large bones of the hips and legs, while the downward poses work the wrists, arms, and shoulders. Several other poses also work the back muscles, and help preserve the strength of the spine. Along with these benefits, balance, coordination, and body awareness increases; preventing falls. 


Another rather trite and unsurprising tip comes in the form of walking. A workout trend that will likely never go away, walking is still a hugely popular way of staying fit, and for good reason. . A study of nurses found that walking four hours a week gave them a 41% lower risk of hip fractures, compared to walking less than an hour a week. Brisk walking is best, but you can adapt your speed to your current fitness level. Walking is free, and you can do it anywhere, anytime, even when you're traveling.


And while it's mostly popular among older men, women can also benefit from the next activity. Golf. Shouldering a heavy bag around eighteen holes and driving a ball with a big metal club can add quite a bit of upper body work to your routine. And walking, chasing the ball lost in the rough, and getting in and out of the cart is good for your legs, hips, and spine. 


And as a final tip, as with most things in fitness and health, be patient. The bone building phase in young adults takes three to four months, so it may take you a bit longer if you have osteoporosis or are an older person. Big changes generally come with time and persistence, so don't drop the cash on a bone density test after half a month of working out. Bones can change, but they do so slowly.