Low bone density, a precursor to osteoporosis, is a common condition that affects millions of individuals each year.
In fact, the National Osteoporosis Foundation reports a total of 10.2 million American adults have osteoporosis and an additional 43.3 million have low bone density.
Exercise has been shown as an effective strategy to build strong bones and help prevent osteoporosis.
In this article you will learn about:
- Who is susceptible to Osteoporosis?
- Why healthy nutrition builds strong bones?
- Why exercise is important to make your bones strong?
- 4 Essential Exercises to Make your Bones Strong
More About Osteoporosis
Some of the most dangerous complications of osteoporosis are fractures of the spine and hips. These two types of fractures are the most common injuries, with a combined total of about 1 million fractures per year.
Tragically, the injuries associated with osteoporosis all too frequently lead to permanent disability without recovery to your pre-injury quality of life and activity level.
Recovering from a fracture is hard enough when you’re young, let alone in your golden years, so preventing osteoporosis, and therefore these complicated injuries, is your best bet for overall health and comfort.
Armed with the proper understanding of osteoporosis, you can not only prevent it, but also begin to rebuild the integrity of your bones!
Who is susceptible to Osteoporosis?
While everyone is susceptible to low bone density, there are a few factors that increase risk:
- Aged over 50
- Postmenopausal women
- Chronic steroid use
- Poor nutrition
- Excessive drinking
- Sleep deprivation
More about bones
The skeletal system consists of 206 bones that are primarily responsible for providing structure to the body, protecting vital organs like the brain and heart, and assisting in force absorption.
Bones also fulfill a vital role in blood cell production and storage for essential minerals needed for bodily functions.
Every bone is made up of a solid outer layer and a hollow, porous inner portion. This porous inner portion allows the bone to flex and absorb shock while providing durability. If this part of the bone becomes too brittle, it can cause discomfort or even lead to a fracture.
On a biological level, bone density describes how porous bone is. With osteoporosis, your bones are overly porous, which causes bones to be frail and puts them at risk to break.
Bones are comprised of of calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and collagen (a fibrous protein). Many would assume that bones are strict, unchanging support beams of the body. However, bones are actually more like sturdy yet flexible living organisms that constantly undergo change.
Generally speaking, there are two cells that contribute to bone health:
Osteoblasts—Build new bone
Osteoclasts—Absorb bone tissue
Together, osteoblasts and osteoclasts regulate bone density and prevent the skeletal system from becoming too dense or too weak. They operate in a constant ebb and flow to maintain optimal density. This delicate balance is directly affected by your lifestyle.
Simply put, a sedentary lifestyle paired with a poor diet and other risk factors mentioned above will ensure a higher activity of osteoclasts, which decreases bone density.
Conversely, a healthy lifestyle that pairs exercise with a good diet boosts the activity of osteoblasts, which increases bone density.
Calcium, magnesium, and Vitamin D are key nutrients to bone health.
This mineral is one of the most important nutrients in the body. More often than not, you’ll hear about calcium as it relates to bone health. While it is vital in optimal bone health, calcium also supports blood clotting and normal functioning of the heart, nerves, and muscles.
Calcium’s central role in bone health comes as no surprise when you understand that more than 99% of calcium is stored in the bones and teeth.
But how exactly does calcium build strong bones? This nutrient combines with phosphorus and water to form a material called hydroxyapatite. Think of hydroxyapatite like a cement that, when mixed with bone collagen, hardens to form a strong, sturdy concrete.
Getting enough calcium in your body is essential for bone health. If one lacks calcium from the diet, the body will extract calcium from the bones, essentially breaking up the concrete that makes bones strong and exponentially increasing your risk of fracture.
Additionally, poor eating habits, like those found in the Standard American Diet, tend to increase the acidity of your blood.
As a countermeasure, your body releases calcium and other minerals from your bones that helps neutralize the excessive acid in an effort to return your blood to a normal pH.
If you are routinely losing calcium from your bones then you are at greater risk for osteoporosis.
Our bones store about 60% of total magnesium in our bodies, making it another essential mineral for strong bones.
Unfortunately, studies have found that about 50% of the US population gets less than the recommended daily amount of magnesium.
Magnesium is necessary for the production of a protein called integrin. Integrin binds bone collagen fibers together, giving bone the right amount of strength and flexibility. A healthy amount of magnesium, and therefore integrin, will help prevent bone fractures.
Additionally, magnesium supports the production of ATP, the main energy molecule in the body. Given the high energy demands of new bone formation, ATP plays an oversized role in fueling the bone healing process. Most individuals get enough calcium from their diet, but tend to be about 15 to 20% deficient in magnesium.
This essential vitamin is needed for proper calcium absorption, which is why you’ll often find them paired in supplements. Vitamin D stimulates calcium absorption from the gut and reduces calcium excretion by the kidneys.
Sub-optimal vitamin D levels cause decreased calcium absorption, resulting in less calcium available to make new bone.
Nutrition first, then exercise to make your bones strong
If you are already suffering from weakened bones, then you must first adjust your diet to build back bone integrity. Adding exercise on to weakened bones is akin to adding more floors to a building with a crumbling foundation.
The high impact of cardio or the weight of load-bearing exercises could potentially cause the bones to fracture. Therefore, first improve skeletal integrity by eating a nutrient-dense diet that will provide all of the minerals and essential proteins needed to rebuild bones.
Aim for a diet that is high in calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D and avoid highly processed ingredients. If necessary, consider supplementation.
These nutrient-dense foods are a great addition to your diet to build bone density:
- Dark, leafy greens
- Fatty fish
Foods to Avoid
Avoid these dietary habits that are detrimental to bone health:
- Highly processed foods
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Highly refined carbohydrates (chips, cookies, crackers, etc)
- Sun Exposure (at least 60 minutes a day)
- Avoid tobacco exposure
- Refrain from excessive alcohol use
Why exercise is important to make your bones strong?
If you suffer from osteoporosis then you may think that you should avoid exercise. On the contrary, once proper nutrition is in place, the body must be challenged to increase bone density. Avoiding exercise or resting indefinitely will only worsen the situation and cause further deterioration of bone density!
Exercise, specifically weight-bearing exercise, induces a biologic signal that stimulates new bone growth.
This new growth overpowers osteoclasts and leads to improved bone density, reducing your risk of osteoporosis.
Learn from NASA
NASA requires astronauts that spend an extended time in orbit to exercise close to two hours every day to prevent severe bone loss and muscle atrophy. This is because the zero gravity atmosphere places no stress on their bones and muscles.
The astronaut’s body adapts by rapidly reducing their bone density and muscle mass. If astronauts did not complete these workouts, they would be in critical condition when returning to gravity’s demands on Earth.
While perhaps not as extreme as space travel, rest and inactivity will negatively impact your bone health in a similar manner. Bone is a biological machine that needs to be encouraged to grow and regenerate.
Moreover, exercise is not only awesome for bone health, but also stimulates new tendon and muscle growth.
When your muscles and tendons are weak, then your bones will experience too much stress and strain, putting them at risk for injury!
Exercising will increase the muscles and tendons ability to absorb force, which will ultimately help protect your bones.
4 Essential Exercises to Make your Bones Strong
Before beginning any exercise protocol, check with your health care provider to make sure weight-bearing or high-impact activities are safe for you.
Exercise 1-High-impact cardio
Cardio offers bones the full effect of bodyweight and then some. During running and other types of cardio exercise, your bones can feel the impact of up to 6 times your body weight.
The repetitive impact and high stress forces the bone to grow and get stronger. As an added benefit, cardio boosts heart health. Now that’s a nice combination!
Some other cardio options:
Walk-Jogs: Begin with walking at a nice easy pace. Add bouts of jogging in small intervals.
A good strategy to start with is to walk four times as much as you jog.
For example, a 20-minute walk program would look like this:
- 4 minutes of walking followed by 1 minute of jogging.
- Complete this cycle 4 times to complete the 20 minute duration.
If the idea of walking and jogging does not interest you, try more adventurous forms of cardio such as hiking, dancing, jumping rope, swimming, aerobics, and zumba.
All of these are good options that can offer some fun during exercise.
Exercise 2-Mind Body Exercise
Yoga is a great exercise to get you on your feet and introduce light impact to stimulate bone growth. Also, yoga offers myriad health benefits including:
- strengthening your core muscles
- improving balance
- increasing flexibility
- helping prevent falls
- improving posture
- stimulating beneficial hormones
- reducing stress
- providing mental clarity
You can not go wrong by introducing yoga into your life.
There are a few different forms of yoga. If you are looking to increase bone density, try a Vinyasa yoga class. This style of yoga involves “flowing” from pose to pose and will offer a challenging workout while minimizing excessive impact.
Originally developed for self-defense, tai chi has evolved into a graceful form of exercise. You can think of it as meditation in motion.
The standing postures and gentle flowing movements provide an excellent stimulus for new bone growth. And, as a welcomed bonus, Tai Chi nourishes and soothes your joints!
Exercise 3- Strength Training
Strength training significantly enhances bone density by overloading the weight-bearing abilities of your bones.
Focus on exercises that stress the most commonly fractured bones. These include the hip, spine, wrist, arm, and ankle bones.
Exercises to consider:
- Squats (Spine, hips, ankles)
- Lunges (Spine, hips, ankles)
- Step-ups (Spine, hips, ankles)
- Overhead Press (Arms, wrists)
- Landmines (Arms, wrists)
- Bench Press (Arms, wrists)
Choosing a weight
If you have never completed strength training before, choosing the correct weight will take some trial and error.
A good rule of thumb is to adjust your weight so that the last rep of a set is challenging, but not impossible.
Remember, if you are exercising on weakened bones then you are already at risk for injury, so excessive weight and poor technique are a deadly combination. Err on the side of caution and start with a lower weight, then work your way up.
Exercise 4-Eccentric Resistance Training
There is a special type of weight lifting called “eccentric training” that produces extraordinary health benefits.
Eccentric training focuses on the lowering phase of a lift or exercise, when tendons and muscles lengthen. Look at the figure to get a better sense of what an eccentric lift is.
The eccentric contraction is the lowering part of a muscle contraction. The muscle is under tension, but the muscle fibers are being lengthened.
Why eccentric training is important?
Eccentric lifting generates greater force within the muscle and tendons compared to other types of resistance training.
This means more strain is placed on the bone, resulting in a larger growth stimulus signal and greater bone density.
Therefore, it is absolutely essential that you focus on the eccentric movement (lowering of the weight) when completing your strength training program.
Start Building Strong Bones Now
Invest in the importance of your bone health! Start early and make bone health a part of your daily routine.
Thankfully, it’s never too late nor never too early to start building strong bones.
Irrespective of your age and the degree of osteoporosis in your body, you are always able to make new, strong bone.
It is important to both replenish your bones with the nutrients they need, and to stress your bones with daily exercise.
Make the right choice. Get your bones back in shape now so you don’t have to worry about the consequences of weak bones later!