Aside from optimizing our nutrition through diet and supplements, the best gift we can give our bones is weight-bearing exercise. Study after study confirms that putting certain kinds of stresses on bones helps them to grow, or at least to resist shrinking.
So what exercise makes the difference for bones? Weight-bearing exercise includes almost any kind we do on our feet while working against gravity. Some examples are walking, jogging, hiking, dancing, and climbing stairs. Good news for me – gardening also counts! Swimming and biking are great for other reasons, but they are not weight-bearing because they don’t involve working our muscles and bones against gravity; therefore they aren’t the best for building bones.
If it were only as simple as going for a walk each day… But the problem is that our bones quickly adapt to the level of stress they usually encounter, then need new challenges to stimulate them to grow. So it helps to surprise them with new moves and greater intensities; for that reason it’s important to choose a variety of activities, and to alternate between lower and higher intensities. One study found that “inserting a 10-s rest interval between each load cycle amplifies bone’s response to mechanical loading”. That suggests that our bones are more stimulated to grow by a sequence of high intensity short bursts interspersed with 10-second rests, than by longer periods of sustained exercise. So digging the garden – as soon as I can get to it – will be better for my bones than a long run.
Exercise on our feet is vital for our vulnerable hip joints (femoral necks), as well as our spines and femurs. While those are the sites that the DEXA machines scan for density, we have other bones to consider: wrists and upper arms are also prone to fractures. So it makes sense to include a range of activities that stress those bones, like pushups, triceps dips, and carrying heavy groceries. Here’s a link to a site with lots of exercise suggestions.
Anything that improves our balance helps reduce the likelihood of falling. Lately I’ve opted to spend life’s less interesting moments standing on one foot, then switching to the other. It hasn’t taken long for me to develop impressive flamingo skills, which I practise while brushing my teeth, putting on socks, waiting in line, or talking on the phone. One day this should help me catch myself before falling.
But what about all the warnings for people with osteoporosis? “BE CAREFUL. Don’t run, or jump, or twist, or hug anyone, or sneeze.” Yes, if you have osteoporosis it’s essential that you exercise appropriately for your condition, and with medical approval. Consulting a qualified trainer is a good idea. These warnings are particularly important:
- Do NOT do any high impact exercises without medical approval. These can result in stress fractures.
- Do NOT do exercises that involve bending forward at the waist, such as toe-touching. These can result in spontaneous crush fractures of the spine when coming back up from this position.
Personally, I’ve been able to continue hugging and sneezing without breaking anything. I also run gently on a treadmill (lower impact than on the road), and I might have mentioned that I plan to garden…soon. For anyone concerned about bone density – find some activities you can fit into your day and DO THEM. Life as you know it may depend on it.