Exercise for bone health
With my 40th birthday looming, I’ve been thinking a lot about fitness and ageing. What does it mean to be fit as we get older? What are the benefits? What kind of exercise should we be doing?
This week I want to talk about osteoporosis as it’s such a common condition and one on which exercise can have a significant impact. Weight-bearing exercise is important not only for those suffering from osteoporosis but as a preventative strategy for younger people.
According to The National Osteoporosis Society, “If you ‘bank’ enough bone when you are young, you will be in a better position to withstand the natural bone loss we all experience later in life.”
A loss of bone density occurs as part of the natural ageing process but with osteoporosis bones become fragile and brittle, increasing the risk of fractures. It affects primarily older women although men and younger people can be affected. In the UK around three million people have osteoporosis with one in two women and one in five men suffering an osteoporosis-related fracture after the age of 50. Most of those with osteoporosis are unaware they have the condition until they have their first fracture.
Genetics determine skeleton strength to a large extent but lifestyle factors also play a significant role. Sedentary lifestyles, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and being either significantly underweight or obese can all increase the risk.
The good news is that there are steps which can be taken to maintain and improve bone density at any age, not least of which is ensuring you get enough exercise. Other recommendations include reducing your alcohol consumption, quitting smoking and eating a balanced diet, as well ensuring you have an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D.
I have a vivid childhood memory of an elderly neighbour knocking on our front door, asking for help. He had been working on a ladder when he slipped. He was unhurt but as he fell his wife, who was holding the ladder, was knocked to the ground. She suffered from osteoporosis and ended up breaking her pelvis, both of her legs and a wrist.
I was stunned. As a child I was used to falling off bicycles and roller skates with nothing more to show for it than a few bruises and scratches. I had no idea bones could be so easily broken.
Because I specialise in exercise for the over 50s, I now deal with people with osteoporosis and osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis) on a regular basis and I’ve seen strong evidence of the benefits of exercise among my older clients. Several of them who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis or low bone density have reported improvements in bone density tests after starting regular exercise.
Regardless of age, in order to improve bone health, everyone’s exercise programme should include resistance training. this can be carried out with free weights, machines, resistance bands or even just bodyweight. Weight bearing activities are also key – walking, aerobics, ball sports, in fact any exercise performed while bearing your own weight. Swimming and cycling provide lots of health benefits but are non-weight bearing so will not have an effect on bone strength.
And of course the benefits go beyond stronger bones. Performing physical activity will also help combat conditions such as type II diabetes and heart disease.
Balance exercises are also crucial, particularly for older people. One of the main causes of hospitalisation in the elderly is falls. Approximately one third of those over 65 fall each year and even a minor fall can result in a fracture for those with osteoporosis. Reducing the risk of falls reduces the risk of fractures.
For those who already have osteoporosis or osteopenia, the considerations are slightly different and you should always seek advice from your doctor or physic before starting an exercise programme. Although weight bearing and resistance training are still recommended, adjustments will need to be made. Those with osteoporosis, for example, should avoid high impact exercises such as jogging or aerobics which can actually increase the risk of injury.
Pilates can be particularly beneficial as it is both low-impact and weight-bearing, however, modifications may need to be made to the exercised depending on the severity of the disease and the site of bone loss.
In short, you’re never too young to be thinking about building bone health. If you’re a bit older and already suffering from osteoporosis, make exercise a regular part of your routine.
For more information about osteoporosis visit The National Osteoporosis Society’s website at www.nos.org.uk