In one study, postmenopausal women who participated in a strength training program for a year saw significant increases in their bone density in the spine and hips, areas affected most by osteoporosis in older women.
"We lose so much muscle as we age that by the time we're 70, we only have about 50% to 55% of our muscle mass left," says Beatrice Edwards, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine and director of the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "That explains why we feel weak and tired as we age, and we can prevent some of that with weight training."
Getting Started on Weight Training for Osteoporosis
How should you start weight training for osteoporosis? Focus on the back and the hip, says Don Lein, MS, PT, a physical therapist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham's Spain Rehabilitation Center and its Osteoporosis Prevention and Treatment Clinic. Those are the areas most damaged by bone loss, and the areas most at risk from osteoporosis-related fractures.
"Good exercises include hip extension, hip abduction and adduction, and hip flexion -- anything that works around the hip," he says. "Backward bending is also good."
Here's one particularly good exercise:
- Sit on a bench or chair with 5-pound weights strapped to each ankle.
- Then "march" in place, lifting the knees alternately.
"You're working the hip flexor muscles, which are attached to both the back and hip, which leads to improved bone and muscle mass in both areas," explains Lein.
Here are seven other important weight training tips:
- Work under the supervision of a qualified, certified personal trainer, especially at first and particularly if you have any medical issues.
- Do strength training two to three times a week, with at least one day of rest between each session (especially if you're working the same muscles at each session).
- Do one exercise for each major muscle group, for a total of eight to 12 different exercises. Do one or two sets of eight to 10 repetitions for each exercise.
- Lift the weight slowly; lift to a count of four and lower to a count of four, says Lein. "This decreases the likelihood of injury while helping to recruit the muscle better."
- Don't use other muscles to compensate. You should only be moving the muscle you're supposed to be moving!
- Tighten abdominal muscles to help protect your spine.
- Periodically consult with a trainer about increasing the amount of weight you lift as you become stronger.
If you already have osteoporosis, seek out a personal trainer experienced in working with people who have osteoporosis. You may have to find one, like Lein, at a medical center with an osteoporosis program.
Also, be sure to take these two precautions:
- If you have osteoporosis in your spine, don't lift more than 20 to 25 pounds with your arms or against your trunk, and avoid movements that have you twisting your trunk or bending forward extensively. (Bending back is fine, says Lein.)
- If you have osteoporosis in the hips, there is no specific restriction on the amount of weight lifted or types of movement. But people with osteoporosis in any area should ensure that their activities don't increase the risk of falling.
You may not see the results on a bone density test immediately, cautions Felicia Cosman, MD, medical director of the Clinical Research Center at Helen Hayes Hospital in Haverstraw, N.Y., a spokeswoman for the National Osteoporosis Foundation. "Time and time again, I'll recommend weight training to patients and they come back expecting to see big changes in bone density in a year or two."
"That's not realistic. You're helping to prevent bone loss, and the changes may be relatively small per year," she says. "But if you persist with your weight training, even a 1% change in bone density every year adds up to a 10% difference after ten years. … That's a lot of bone."