Want stronger bones? This exercise will help

Bones need more than just calcium to stay strong. Here's how exercise can help prevent osteo issues.

Written by Dr Lisa Croucher and Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh

Lifelong exercise is crucial for preventing osteoporosis. Building and keeping strong bones from childhood to our senior years with good diet, healthy lifestyle and exercise is the best insurance against fragile bones in older age.

It’s never too late to start exercising to protect your bones, but it’s clear from recent research that we need to adopt a far more focused, evidence-based approach to exercise for bones than we have so far. ‘Just get moving’ isn’t helpful advice for a person facing the very real prospect of osteoporosis and broken bones as they age.

The best exercise for strong bones

Putting the skeleton under stress – jolting the bones and subjecting them to forces that they aren’t used to in everyday life – drives the bones to get stronger so that they can stand up to similar stresses in the future. This is why low-impact exercises such as swimming, cycling, and ordinary walking don’t improve bone strength.

Exercises that involve the feet making forceful impact with the ground, such as running, jumping, and even tennis and dancing are good for bones, as well as resistance exercise (strength training using gym machines, lifting weights or pushing against your own body weight).

A combination of both exercise types, done for around 30 minutes, 3-5 times per week and gradually increasing in intensity, is recommended for healthy adults to maintain bone strength.

"Increase your exercise intensity over time so that your bones don’t get ‘comfortable’ and stop responding."

Exercising as you age

In people over the age of 50, a more targeted approach is needed to strengthen the ‘high risk’ bones of the hip, spine, wrist and ankle. These sites are most at risk of osteoporotic fracture.

Based on evidence from studies published over the last few years, Osteoporosis Australia’s experts recommend that older adults perform regular (2-3 times per week) resistance exercises that work the muscles attached to high-risk bones. Back and knee extension exercises and squats or lunges are good examples.

For the best results, here are a few more tips:

1. Build up your intensity

It is critical that the intensity of resistance exercise is increased over time so that the bones don’t get ‘comfortable’ and stop responding (low intensity resistance training doesn’t improve bone strength).

2. Increase your resistance level

The weight or level of resistance used should be increased gradually over a number of sessions until the weight feels hard to lift, but not impossible.

3. Speed up

Performing resistance exercises at high speed also increases their effectiveness.

4. Add in high impact activities

This type of exercise has benefits when performed alone or in combination with high impact activities. Jumping, hopping or skipping in different directions for short bursts of a few seconds is very effective.

5. Work on your balance

If you have had one or more falls recently, then you should add balance exercises to your exercise routine, such as standing on one leg with your eyes closed.

Exercise safely

Before you start exercising for bone health, especially if you have osteoporosis or have already had a fracture, it’s important that you consult a qualified exercise professional. Some exercises should not be performed if your bone health is already very poor, and high impact activities may be not be advised if you have arthritis in your hips, knees or feet.

A physiotherapist or accredited exercise physiologist can design a safe and effective exercise program, and provide supervision if needed.

To self assess your bone health, check out the handy tool at Know Your Bones.

Written by Dr Lisa Croucher and Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh

Professor Maria A. Fiatarone Singh holds the John Sutton Chair of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Sydney. Dr Lisa Croucher is the Scientific Advisor at Osteoporosis Australia.

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