To the 43 million Americans who have low bone density, putting them at high risk of osteoporosis, medical researchers have an important message during this National Osteoporosis Month: exercise is good medicine. But not just any exercise – weight-bearing, muscle-strengthening exercise.
“Like muscle, bone is a living tissue that responds to exercise by becoming stronger,” states the National Institutes of Health National Resource Center. “For most people, bone mass peaks during the third decade of life. After that time, we can begin to lose bone. Women and men older than 20 can help prevent bone loss with regular exercise.”
Osteoporosis is a disease, often associated with the elderly, that’s defined by the thinning and weakening of a person’s bone structure. The condition is suffered by 9 million people in the U.S. – mostly women, but men as well – and results in a higher risk of breaks and sometimes a vast reduction in one’s mobility, independence and quality of life.
In fact, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), osteoporosis is responsible for two million broken bones each year, costing patients, families and the health care system $19 billion annually.
Though the numbers are staggering, research suggests people should feel empowered to take charge of their bone health as they age. Along with diet and regular check-ups, an exercise regimen that includes elements of strength and resistance training can help slow these effects of aging while allowing one to maintain a high quality of life through activity and independence.
Such exercises can include weight-bearing exercises like brisk running, tennis, aerobics, dancing, etc., as well as everyday activities like walking, gardening, swimming or playing golf.
Exercises that benefit bone health fall into four categories, says the National Osteoporosis Foundation:
Posture Exercises: These movements are established to improve posture and reduce “sloped” shoulders, helping decrease your risk of breaking a bone.
Hip & Back Strengthening Exercises: The goal of these exercises is to help strengthen the muscles in the back and hips.
Balance Exercises: Strengthen your legs and challenge your balance with these exercises, which are meant to decrease your chance of falling.
Functional Exercises: For older adults and those with limited movement, everyday activities like these – walking stairs, standing and sitting, etc. – improve how well you move and decrease your chance of falling and breaking a bone.
According to one bone density study by the University of Missouri, the most effective exercises and exercise regimens include high-impact activities, like running, that are designed to target specific areas of the body.
“Exercise programs to increase bone strength should be designed using what is known about how bones respond to exercise,” said Pam Hinton, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences. “Only the skeletal sites that experience increased stress from exercise will become stronger.”
Due to this, and for the sake of both health and safety, a thorough strength, movement and balance assessment should precede any new exercise regimen, especially in older adults – assessments that licensed physical therapists are uniquely qualified to perform. A physical therapist can provide his or her client with exercise programs based on personalized goals, movement limitations and health considerations.
“If a person is afraid of falling or they are afraid of having another fracture, that’s a specific time when they need to get a physical therapist (PT) because a PT can help divide the world into a very safe activity that is more likely to cause a fracture,” said Kathy M. Schipp, MHS, PhD, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development and Duke University Medical Center. “That’s one of the things that a physical therapist can provide – helping people to be maximally active in a safe way. And that is what will prevent future fractures.
Everyday Health: Physical Therapy for Osteoporosis Treatment
NIH Osteoporosis & Related Bone Disease National Research Center: Exercise for Your Bone Health
National Osteoporosis Foundation: Exercise Examples
National Osteoporosis Foundation: May is National Osteoporosis Month
National Osteoporosis Foundation: Five Things You Can Do To Break Free from Osteoporosis
Medical News Today: Osteoporosis Can Be Forestalled by Exercise
Medical News Today: Running May Provide More Benefits to Bones Than Resistance Training