Exercise and strong bones
As many as 3 million people in the UK suffer from osteoporosis—a debilitating disease characterised by weak, brittle bones. But did you know that regular exercise can go a long way to reducing your risk of developing this disease?
Bone is a living tissue that reacts to increases in loads and forces put upon it by growing stronger. Weight-bearing exercise that uses your body weight (such as jogging) and weight-resisted exercise (which involves pushing against some resistance, as in strength training) both help to improve bone strength. In later life, exercises to improve muscle strength and balance will also help to prevent falls.
What kinds of exercise work?
Brief bouts of high-impact exercise, creating a large force that rises rapidly, are a good way to load your bones and ’bank’ as much bone as you can when you are young. You will then be in a better position to withstand the natural bone loss that we all experience in later life.
Team sports such as football, as well as participation classes such as dancing, are a great way of getting children involved in fitness from a young age. Key bone-building years are those up to about your mid-twenties, so plenty of weight-bearing exercise will build strength into young bones.
- Jumping on the spot or skipping is good for children and young people because it increases the impact on the bones. Aim for 50 jumps a day or skipping for five minutes each day.
- A 20-minute jog three times a week is good for building bone in both the hip and spine in younger people. Intermittent jogging is also good, especially for people who find continuous jogging too strenuous. Walk then jog every 20 metres or so. Even a very brisk walk can be good for your bones.
- The slow, controlled lifting of weights, best done in a proper gym with advice from an instructor, will increase bone density and makes your muscles stronger. Try to train three times a week on non-consecutive days.
- Tennis is another high-impact but enjoyable sport that builds bone density. Research has shown that professional tennis players have much higher bone density in their serving arm than their non-serving arm!
Exercising if you are at a high risk of fracture, especially if you are over 70 or have broken bones easily in the past is best done with guidance from a Health Coach or other fitness professional. However staying active, building muscle strength and maintaining your flexibility are all vital to your health.
- Enjoying a walk every day is an easy and free way to gain fitness. Over time you can add some extra weight to a well-fitted rucksack or weight belt. If you are prone to falling, increase the duration of the walk, not the speed.
- All types of dancing can provide enjoyable exercise and are especially good for balance as well as your bones. Choose a class that is suitable for your abilities.
- Tai Chi is an ancient form of Chinese martial arts that is good for improving posture and balance. Choose a class that is suitable for your abilities.
- Swimming provides an excellent opportunity to improve stamina in a weight-supported environment. It can help to improve the flexibility of joints and can also help with pain. Try walking about in the water, sideways and backwards as well as forwards. If you progress to using paddles and equipment to resist the water (e.g. in aqua aerobics) then you may also see improvements in strength.
What else can I do?
Diet plays an important part in maintaining bone density.
- Calcium is the main building block for bones and gives bones their strength and structure. Our body’s ability to absorb calcium reduces as we get older, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough calcium in later life (the recommended amount for adults is 700mg per day). Eating calcium-rich foods is the best way to get calcium into your body. Calcium-rich foods include milk, cheese, yoghurt and calcium enriched soya products, leafy green vegetables and dried fruit.
- Make sure you get enough vitamin D. If you don’t get enough vitamin D then your body doesn’t absorb the calcium needed for strong bones.The main source of vitamin D is from our skin’s exposure to sunlight: most people get enough vitamin D in summer by spending short amounts of time in the sun, but in winter, most of us become deficient in this vital nutrient. A small amount of vitamin D is found naturally in some foods (e.g. oily fish, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals).
- Maintain a healthy body weight: keeping a healthy body weight can help to keep your bones healthy. Low body weight means you have smaller bones which tend to be more fragile. If you’re malnourished, as well as not getting enough energy from your diet, you may not be eating enough nutrients that help build healthy bones.
If you have any questions about how to keep your bones strong and healthy, do speak to your GP, or to one of our friendly Health Coaches who can help with a bespoke exercise plan.