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Exercise can help you keep your bones strong

Exercise can help you keep your bones strong


Running, jumping, and other weight-bearing exercises stimulate your bones and make them stronger.

If you’ve gone through menopause, your bones probably aren’t as strong as they used to be.

“Around the time of menopause, there is accelerated bone loss in women as the ovaries stop producing estrogen,” says Dr. Meryl S. LeBoff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. This bone loss usually continues as you age, leading in some cases to either of two conditions: osteoporosis (a significant loss of bone density), or the less severe osteopenia (low bone mass). Together, these conditions affect 43.4 million Americans. Either can cause the bones to become brittle and break easily.

But you may be able to reduce this age-related bone loss by starting an exercise program designed to bolster your bone strength.

The building blocks of bone

You might think of your bones as solid and idle, but in reality, they consist of active, living tissue that adapts to the strains and stress of physical activity. In children, whose bodies are still growing, regular exercise — particularly activities that put force on the bones, such as gymnastics, jumping, and running — can stimulate cells in the bones to fortify themselves. These cellular and other mechanisms, which experts still don’t fully understand, contribute to improved bone structure, strength, and density, says Dr. LeBoff. Studies of gymnasts, for example, show that their activity markedly increases their bone density. Other research has found that tennis players have denser bones in their dominant arm, which gets more of a workout than their nondominant arm, says Dr. LeBoff.

In adults, exercise doesn’t have the same ability to increase bone density the way it does in kids, but it can still have moderate bone-building effects. Getting enough exercise can help bones maintain strength that might otherwise be lost because of age- and hormone-related changes.

Moving to maintain bone health

“Exercise is important across the entire life span, although the types of exercises and goals may vary,” says Dr. LeBoff. “Exercise around the time of menopause does not have the benefits you see in prepubescent children.” But the right workouts can help you maintain the bone you already have and improve muscle strength.

An exercise program designed to protect your bone density should include three main components, says Dr. LeBoff:

Weight-bearing exercises. These might include jogging, walking, dancing, stair climbing, or higher-impact sports, such as jumping, tennis, squash, or soccer. “Even exercises such as tai chi and stair climbing have been shown to benefit bone health,” she says.

Resistance exercises. Building muscle can also benefit your bones. Strong fibers of muscle actually pull on the bone when they contract, which nudges bone cells into action to help strengthen the bones. In addition, the stronger your muscles are, the more likely you will be able to maintain your balance and reduce your risk of falls, which are a major cause of fractures in older women.

When you are developing a resistance training program, be certain to include exercises that target all areas of the body, from your arms and legs to your core and back. Back-strengthening exercises can improve posture and help support the spine, which is a common site for fractures as people age, says Dr. LeBoff. Resistance exercises can use light weights or weight machines, stretchy bands, or even your own body weight to challenge your muscles.

If you have low bone mass or osteoporosis, you should always exercise under professional guidance, avoid heavy weights, and exercises that require you to flex, bend, or twist the back — movements that are associated with spine fractures, says Dr. LeBoff.

Stretching. Staying limber not only protects against falls, but may also help to ease pain associated with arthritis. Incorporate stretching exercises that target all your main muscle groups.

Establishing an exercise program

The best exercise program is one that you enjoy and can stick with. Even short bursts of exercise can be helpful, so if you need to, break up your workouts into smaller pieces throughout the day. While higher-impact activities such as jogging or jumping are more stimulating to the bones, you can still get some benefits by walking. Also, be certain to focus not only on exercise, but also on good nutrition, specifically getting enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet or (if your doctor thinks it’s necessary) through supplements. Avoid excessive alcohol and smoking, which can contribute to the risk of osteoporosis.

Image: © adamkaz/Getty Images

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