Exercise and Bone Health
Betty Chaffee, PharmD, is owner and sole proprietor of BetterMyMeds, a Medication Management service devoted to helping people get the maximum benefit from their medications.
Bone health is important. Healthy, strong bones allow us to stay active, both physically and socially. We can go about our daily business with little fear of injury. But when bones weaken and become fragile (a health condition called osteoporosis), the risk of fractures increases. The most common fractures in those with osteoporosis tend to occur in the hips and spine. Hip fractures often require surgery and hospital stays; spine fractures can result in loss of height, spine curvature, and chronic back pain. But there are things we can do to keep our bones from weakening as we age.
We've talked in recent articles about the importance of calcium and vitamin D in maintaining bone health. But as with other chronic health concerns, lifestyle can have a huge impact on bone health. Some of you have reminded me of the importance of that in your comments. So let's talk about how lifestyle affects the risk of osteoporosis.
What lifestyle choices matter?
There are only a few things within our control that affect bone health. Research has shown that those who smoke are at higher risk of osteoporosis. Heavy drinkers of alcohol are similarly at risk, both because bones become weaker and because alcohol increases the risk of falling. Body weight also matters -- both very low body weight and obesity can increase the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
But probably the most important lifestyle choice impacting bone health involves regular exercise. To exercise or not to exercise? What kind of exercise to engage in? How much time do you devote to exercise? Well, here's the scoop.
For some background, bones are living organs in the body. Up to about the age of 30 or so, more bone is made than lost. Bones are at their strongest in young adults. But after that, the tide gradually shifts so that bone mass starts to decrease. Keeping enough calcium available to the bones can decrease bone loss. But exercise also helps. Stress put on the bones during exercise actually decreases the loss of bone mass. The stress helps the cells that make new bone work more efficiently to increase bone strength.
Weight-bearing exercise and resistance training are the two types of exercise that are most effective at decreasing bone loss. But those two categories include many different activities. Walking (yes, just walking!) is an excellent way to maintain bone health. Dancing, tennis and other racquet sports, hiking -- all of these and more are activities that make your body defy gravity and put stress on your bones. Weight lifting, workouts with resistance bands, Tai Chi, and yoga all make the body work against gravity and put healthy stress on bones. There are many other activities you can enjoy by yourself or with friends that will help your bones maintain strength.
But the other thing that exercise does is to strengthen muscle. Why does that help? Muscle strength improves coordination and makes the body more stable. It also helps to improve balance and make falls less likely. The bottom line is that regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do to keep bones strong and stay active.
How much exercise do you need? Most experts recommend about a half hour five times weekly. It can be aerobic exercise (improving breathing and heart function), resistance training, balance and posture, whatever you choose. The best is to mix it up from day to day, doing different activities that you enjoy on different days.
Some of us hear the word exercise and immediately get tired! And there are others who may be challenged with exercise because of chronic health concerns. Plus, right now we're still pretty much in lockdown due to COVID-19. Almost anything we choose has to be done alone or with the people we're locked down with. If you're one of the many people who has trouble getting motivated to exercise, don't despair! You're not alone.
Walking is an easy way to get started, and you can start as slowly as you need to. Or use your library card and download/stream a yoga session. Put on some music and dance in the living room with your lockdown partner. Use your imagination, but whatever you do, try to add some exercise to your routine.
Pass it down!
I want to leave you with this thought. If we model our good choices to the young people in our lives, we'll improve their chances at maintaining good health. In this case, modeling food choices to get enough calcium every day, getting outdoors for enough sunshine or taking vitamin D supplements, and exercising routinely as part of "what we do" will put children and youth on the path to early and lifelong bone health. It's never too early to start living a healthy life!
Have you found a fun and interesting way to stay active? Share it with other readers! We always welcome your questions and comments. Or you can contact us at BetterMyMeds directly for comments, questions, advice, or to make an appointment for a medication review. Here's to good health and a strong body!