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.
Still, it's never too late to start a bone-healthy exercise program, even if you already have osteoporosis or are at high risk of developing osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is often called the "silent disease," because most of the time, bone loss occurs without any symptoms at all. But when osteoporosis becomes severe, it can lead to fractures and a condition called kyphosis. Kyphosis is spinal compression, sometimes described as the "dowager's hump." Both fractures and kyphosis can be very painful. This pain is usually more severe than the typical "aches and pains" many people feel as they get older.
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.
Weight-Bearing Exercises for Osteoporosis
If your doctor determines that it's not safe for you to perform high-impact weight-bearing exercises, he or she may recommend low-impact weight-bearing exercises that are less likely to cause fractures and also build and maintain bone density. These include:
elliptical training machines
walking (either outside or on a treadmill machine)
If you're new to exercise, or haven't exercised for awhile, you should aim to gradually increase your level of weight-bearing exercise to 30 minutes per day on most days of the week.