When it comes to bone health, people often think about nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. But it turns out there’s an equally important ingredient that’s often overlooked, especially as people get older: strength training.
"If you're at risk of thinning bones, or if you just want to preserve your bone health for the long haul, weight-bearing exercise should be the cornerstone of your preventive efforts," says Ryan Desgrange, PA, a physician assistant specializing in orthopedics at Henry Ford Health.
Building Strong Bones
"Building bone mineral density is like making deposits into the bank up until about age 30. Your body is constantly rebuilding and remodeling," Desgrange says. "After that, the process becomes less efficient."
That's where strength training comes into play in terms of preserving bone mineral density and preventing osteoporosis. Don't worry, you don't have to do heavy lifting every day to build and preserve bone mass. Here, Desgrange offers five strategies you can implement:
- Get moving: Walking, jogging and hiking are all examples of weight-bearing exercise — the kind that helps you build and maintain bone mineral density. Even if you've already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, weight-bearing activities can help preserve thinning bones, improve balance and reduce your risk of falls. Things like swimming, biking, surfing and horseback riding are not weight-bearing activities.
- Pick up weight training: Weight training not only helps build muscle, it also strengthens your bones. But before you head to the weight room and pick up 25-pound dumbbells, it's important to make sure you have proper form so you don't injure yourself.
- Focus on at-risk areas: Certain areas of the body, such as your wrist, hips and knees, are more vulnerable to breakage than others. Strengthening supporting structures and surrounding areas can offer your bones an added layer of protection. You might even consider focusing on your core muscles: You can reduce your odds of falls and fractures with strong muscles surrounding your pelvis.
- Take it slow: It's easy to injure yourself when you're trying to do something healthy, like weight training. The key is to make sure you're moving slowly and using proper form. If your bones are thinning and you fall over during a training session, you could cause more harm than good.
- Work with a professional: If you've been mostly sedentary or you've never lifted weights before, it's a good idea to work with a professional like a physical or athletic trainer. Even if you only schedule a few live or virtual sessions, you'll learn proper form and get a tailor-made exercise program. Then you can schedule visits every few weeks to make sure you're doing exercises correctly.
Bone Up On Your Health
As we age, our bones weaken, which increases the risk of developing a fracture. In fact, half of all women and a quarter of all men will have an osteoporosis-related fracture over the course of their lifetime.
To counteract that damage, health authorities recommend 30 minutes of weight-bearing activity four to five times each week. "That 30 minutes can be broken up into 10- or 15-minute intervals," Desgrange says. "It's a good idea to include resistance training focused on high-risk areas twice per week for 20 to 30 minutes, too."
Not a fan of weightlifting? There are plenty of ways to add resistance that don't require hoisting a dumbbell. Use your own body weight to do exercises like squats, lunges and push-ups. Balance on a Swiss ball or take a tai chi class. The idea is to increase strength and resistance over time.
If you're concerned that your bones may be thinning, or if someone in your immediate family suffered from a fracture before age 50, don't wait to get checked out by a health care provider. There are plenty of things you can do to help protect your skeleton.
Ryan Desgrange, MS, PA-C, is the director of advanced practice providers for orthopedics at Henry Ford Health and specializes in bone health and fracture prevention, as well as care for broken bones and trauma. He sees patients at several locations across southeast Michigan and is available for scheduled video visits.