The Important Link Between Exercise and Healthy Bones

Weight bearing exercise reduces osteoporosis risk

Exercise is known to increase bone density and improve bone health. However, not all exercise is equal when it comes to building strong, healthy bones or preventing osteoporosis; some forms may decrease bone density, even in elite athletes.

What Types of Exercise Promote Bone Density?

Researchers from the Bone & Joint Injury Prevention & Rehabilitation Center at the University of Michigan reviewed research as far back as 1961 to determine what impact exercise has on bone density and bone health.

They found three characteristics of exercise have the largest impact on increased bone density. They are:

  • The magnitude of strain the exercise imparts — Exercises that fit into this category include weightlifting and gymnastics because the amount of force or impact exerted on the muscles is significant.
  • The rate of muscle strain the exercise is done — Consider high-impact, weight-bearing exercises that are done in repetition, such as jumping or plyometrics.
  • The frequency that the exercise strains the muscle — Here's where running and jumping rope fit the bill, because of the repetitious impact to the bones that occurs frequently during an exercise session.

The magnitude, rate, and frequency of strain during exercise all play a role in developing greater bone density, but the researchers didn't determine which is the most important of the three. They did say that increases in bone density can be had in as little as 12 to 20 minutes of weight-bearing exercise, three days a week.

But since then, science has found that it could occur in less time than that, and it would be beneficial to consider doing exercises that fall into each of the above categories.

Consider this: jumping 10 to 20 times a day with 30 seconds of rest between each jump provides greater bone-building benefits than running or jogging, according to research out of Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. These researchers found that running and jogging have less impact on bone density because of the repeated bone stress. So, if you are doing those activities daily, you should also be jumping at least 10 times a day.

What if you've been more sedentary than active most of your life? The good news is that you may still be able to regain bone strength.

Evidence also shows that exercise may help build and maintain bone density at any age. Studies have seen bone density increase by doing regular resistance exercises, such as lifting weights, two or three times a week. This type of weight-bearing exercise appears to stimulate bone formation and retain calcium in the bones that are bearing the load.

The force of muscles pulling against bones stimulates the bone-building process. So any exercise that places force on a bone will strengthen that bone.

The Best Exercises for Increasing Bone Density

Experts recommend the following forms of exercise for all athletes in order to increase bone density and prevent bone loss:

Cycling, Swimming May Decrease Bone Density

Swimming and bicycling are not considered weight-bearing exercises and aren't usually listed on the list of exercises that increase bone density. In fact, there is some evidence that elite level cyclists actually lose bone density during high-intensity training and racing.

Several studies found lower bone density in elite level cyclists who train for hours on the bicycle.

Researchers are not entirely sure the cause of the bone loss in cyclists, but the current theories include:

  • The non-weight-bearing nature of cycling put little strain magnitude on the bones.
  • Minerals, including calcium, are lost at an enormous rate during hours of sweating.
  • The possible energy imbalance (more calories are used than consumed) during hours of intense exercise.

Nutrition and Exercise Best for Building Strong Bones

Building and maintaining bone mass requires more than weight-bearing exercise alone. A combination of good nutrition and weight-bearing exercise is the ideal way to build bone mass. Once we reach about age 30, we don't build bone as readily so building adequate bone density early in life is the best way to prevent osteoporosis later. As an adult, the best way to maintain the bone mass is the same way you build it — getting adequate calcium in your diet and doing weight-bearing exercise.​

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