At any age, exercise is essential for maintaining healthy bones. If you exercised regularly as a child and young adult, you probably helped maximize your bone production, most of which occurs by age 35. If you continued to exercise into middle age and beyond, you probably helped reduce your risk of developing the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.
Osteopenia is a term used to describe bone density that is somewhat lower than normal -- but not low enough to be diagnosed as osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which thinning bones become so fragile that they are prone to fracture easily. A person who has osteopenia is at risk for osteoporosis and may benefit from treatments to strengthen bone.
Although people with osteoporosis may believe that exercise increases the risk of injury from broken bones, the truth is quite the opposite. A regular, properly designed exercise program may actually help prevent the falls and fall-related fractures that so often result in disability and premature death. That's because exercise strengthens bones and muscles, and improves balance, coordination, and flexibility, which is especially important for older adults and people who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the best exercises for building and maintaining bone density are:
Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, that makes you work against gravity while staying upright
Muscle-strengthening exercise, such as weight lifting, that makes you work against gravity in a standing, sitting, or prone position
Nonimpact activities such as balance, functional, and posture exercises also may benefit people with osteoporosis. Although these exercises don't build or maintain bone density, they may increase muscle strength and decrease the risk of falls and fractures.
Medical Evaluation Is Key
If you have osteoporosis or are at risk of osteoporosis, most experts believe that supervised weight-bearing exercise and strength training exercise is safe and effective. Studies of postmenopausal women report that aerobic, weight-bearing, and strength training exercise can increase bone mineral density in the spine, and that a simple walking program can increase bone mineral density in the spine and hip.
Before beginning any exercise program, it's important to undergo a thorough medical examination to determine which activities are safe for you.
There is no single exercise regimen that's best for everyone with osteoporosis. Each regimen should be specifically tailored to the individual patient based on a medical evaluation of:
Range of motion
Level of physical activity
During the evaluation, your doctor also will consider any other chronic conditions that can affect your ability to exercise, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. If you're at risk for osteoporotic fracture, the National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that your doctor refer you to a specially trained physical therapist for a through physical assessment and exercise prescriptions that focus on body mechanics and posture, balance, gait and transfer training, resistance weights, and progressive aerobic activities.