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Exercise and Osteoporosis

Here's what you need to know.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that 10 million Americans are living with osteoporosis, a disease characterized by low bone-mineral density and increased fracture risk. Another 34 million are considered at risk, but luckily for most people, this disease is entirely preventable.

Choosing foods that are high in calcium and vitamin D (low fat dairy, dark leafy greens, etc.) and exercising regularly are two important ways to protect and strengthen bone health.

The human body requires calcium for muscle contractions, nerve signaling, hormonal secretions, and as a building block for bone tissue. When blood levels of calcium drop too low, it is taken from bones, greatly increasing the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Because the body cannot manufacture calcium, it is critical that plenty is eaten in the diet (the recommended amount for most adults is 1000-1200 mg daily) to assure an adequate supply.

Two kinds of exercise—weight-bearing cardiovascular and strength training—have been shown to be most effective for improving bone density and preventing osteoporosis.

Bone tissue is made up of living cells that constantly move through phases of rebuilding, and placing those cells under stress (like during exercise) stimulates bone growth.

Weight-bearing cardiovascular exercise includes activities such as walking, running, step aerobics, dancing, jumping rope and playing most sports. These all call for body weight forces to be transmitted through the bones of the feet, legs, hips and spine, leading
to positive adaptations at those sites.

Strength training is a second important type of exercise that not only makes muscles stronger, but can stimulate bone growth due to the force of tendons pulling on bones. Using resistance bands, weight lifting and doing body weight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups and squats are all great ways to strength train.

Exercises that load the spine are also beneficial. For example, weighted squats and lunges compress bones and work them in a different way.

Even adding 30 minutes a day of load-bearing cardio and two or three days a week of strength training can help reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis. To limit your risk for injury, start out with low-impact activities and light weights, especially if you have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis.

If you have suffered fractures in the past, avoid activities that may increase your risk of falling, as well as twisting motions, bending forward too severely and lifting heavy weights.

And before starting any exercise program be sure to consult with your physician, because some types of exercise may be dangerous if you have a high-fracture risk.

By Jessica Pieper, jpieper@washingtonhospital.org

Exercise Physiologist at Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center of The Washington Hospital

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