Bones… We have 206 of them, and they serve us all day, every day.
But how much thought do you give to the bones that allow you to live, move and function?
For most people, it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – we typically don’t consider the importance of our bones unless they break! But our wonderful skeleton is working hard behind the scenes to provide us with strength and resilience, protect our vital organs, and give us a stable base to move from.
Osteoporosis is a common condition in older adults, where bone density decreases below a certain threshold. The word ‘osteoporosis’ literally means ‘porous bone’, resulting in bones that are brittle, weak, and more likely to break. One in 3 women have osteoporosis, but it’s not only a woman’s condition – one in 5 men are also affected.
The good news is that what you do now can make all the difference in 10, 20, or 30 years time. Exercise has a big role to play in keeping your bones strong and resilient.
Our Changing Bones
Our skeleton completely replaces itself every 8-10 years. Our bones are constantly changing, re-modelling, adding new bone cells and taking away the old. This is true regardless of age!
We could delve into the physiology of bone remodeling, but we know you want to get to the good stuff. Basically, the ratio between bone formation versus bone breakdown shifts from being more of the former, to more of the latter, as we age. We reach peak bone density in our mid to late 20’s, and it’s basically all downhill from there.
Osteoporosis is particularly prominent in postmenopausal women as the hormonal changes that occur during menopause speed up the bone-breakdown process. In fact, women lose 15-25% of their bone mass in the 10 years after menopause!
So what should you be doing to keep those bones strong throughout your lifetime?
Preventing Osteoporosis with Exercise
If you are sub-30 years of age, take this opportunity to set the foundations for your long term bone health. If you are 30+ years old, you may have missed your ‘peak’ opportunity, but it’s never too late to start! The stronger bones you can build now, the longer you can delay (or prevent altogether!) the onset of osteoporosis.
Our bones like load – in fact they need it! Just like with building healthy muscles, our bones like to be challenged, as this is what makes them stronger.
In particular, bones benefit from weight-bearing exercise (exercise that works against gravity, such as walking, jogging, skipping, hopping, jumping, dancing, or sports) that involves some impact. These modes are all superior to non-weight bearing exercise (such as cycling, rowing and swimming). It may seem counter-intuitive, but impact forces through the bones actually help to stimulate bone remodeling! Weight bearing exercise helps to keep the bones of the spine, hips, and legs strong – the most important areas when it comes to a resilient skeleton.
Strength training is also great for osteoporosis as the pull of the muscles on the bones helps to stimulate bone building. Try to expose your bones to a range of different forces by doing exercises which move the joint in different directions – pushing, pulling, up, down, rotation.
If you already have osteoporosis (or osteopenia – the precursor), you may wish to include some balance exercises to reduce the risk of falls. Falls can be fatal for vulnerable bones! Keep this in mind with your choice of weight bearing exercise. Exercises that pose a high risk of falls / injury or heavy impact (such as contact sports, skiing, CrossFit box jumps) are probably not for you.
Spare a Thought for Your Bones
If you haven’t given much thought to your bones before, consider this your cue for action. The sooner the better, but you’re never too old to start prioritising the health of your bones!
Author: Yolanda van Vugt Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised
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