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Intensive Training May Help Bone Health as You Age

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Key Takeaways

  • Regular strength and sprint training could counteract bone density loss in older people.
  • Previous research indicates that other benefits to intensive training include mobility and balance.
  • Increasingly, research suggests higher-impact activity should not be avoided as you age, as long as you take a gradual approach.

Strength training and high-intensity activities like sprinting can be effective enough to counteract the natural loss of bone density during aging, according to a study in JBMR Plus.

Researchers looked at 69 male sprinters between 40 to 85 years old with a long-term training background who had two imaging sessions done of their tibias 10 years apart. The athletes who had kept up strength and sprint training showed maintained—or even improved—bone strength. Those who reduced their training load had reduced bone density.

“The adaptability of aging bone can be maintained into older ages and age-related bone deterioration may be counteracted,” says lead author Tuuli Suominen, a doctoral candidate at the faculty of sport and health sciences at the University of Jyväskyla in Finland.

Part of age-related bone loss is attributed to reduced physical activity levels, she says, especially intensive exercise. Impact and intensity load bones and muscles, creating stress. But, as long as that’s done at the right level, it leads to maintained or improved strength and power, says Suominen.

How Much Intensive Training Do You Need?

Although athletes in the recent study showed improvements over a decade, Suominen emphasizes that it definitely doesn’t take that long to boost bone health.

Previous research she and colleagues published in Osteoporosis International found that combining intensive strength exercises with sport-specific sprint training improved tibia structure and strength by about 3 percent after only 20 weeks.

Other research indicates that other health measures can be improved quickly as well, often with shorter, more intense movement done a few times per week. For example, recent research in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that high-impact training like jumping can lead to improvements in reactive strength neurological adaptations.

That means your nervous system becomes geared toward adding power to your movements, says physical therapist Jason Kart, DPT, owner of Core Physical Therapy. That can be especially helpful as you age because it helps you maintain mobility and balance.

Belinda Beck, PhD

We act like older adults are so fragile, and they can't handle impact or it will destroy their bones and joints, but we've found the opposite is true. Unfortunately, many older people, especially women, are given medication to increase bone mass as the first line of defense.

— Belinda Beck, PhD

Benefits of Impact

Because an activity like sprinting is considered high-impact, and the results were beneficial, Suominen suggests that other forms of higher-impact exercise may also have advantages as people age.

“For many, if not most, older people, there are no contraindications for higher-impact exercise unless there are considerations with lower physical function,” she says.

That runs counter to the widespread belief among older people—and some who train them—that only low-impact exercise should be used past a certain age. But Suominen and other researchers are questioning that assumption, and some even say it may be doing more harm than good.

"We act like older adults are so fragile, and they can't handle impact or it will destroy their bones and joints, but we've found the opposite is true," says Belinda Beck, PhD, a researcher at Griffith University in Australia and director of The Bone Clinic, a health service focusing on bone, muscle, and joint health.

Beck continues, “Unfortunately, many older people, especially women, are given medication to increase bone mass as the first line of defense. Those can play a role and may be needed in some situations, but believing that’s the only way to build bone is incorrect.”

In two studies published in the Journal of Bone Mineral Research, Beck and her colleagues recruited about 100 women and put half in a high-intensity resistance and impact training program. The other half did only low-impact, low-intensity exercise.

The high-impact group showed improved bone density within just a few months, while the other group did not. In a follow-up six years later, those doing high-impact work maintained those bone density gains even if they were no longer doing that exercise.

“This means that high-impact, high-intensity exercise is so effective at creating bone density gains that it won’t reverse even if you stop,” says Beck.

The Best Approach To Incorporating Intensive Training

Those who are interested in improving bone health through some form of higher-intensity training are advised to take a very gradual approach, suggests Kart. That’s especially true if you’ve been very sedentary or have functional issues.

“Because you’re playing around with higher loads and more force, that will put increased challenge and stress on the body,” he says. “That’s beneficial, but your body needs time to adapt, and rushing it could set you up for injury.”

Typically, he starts clients with an agility ladder—which involves short, controlled hops—to get them comfortable with coordination and leaving the ground. Other moves that can be helpful are high knee skips, step-ups onto a box, and jumping in and out laterally.

Enlisting the help of a qualified professional like a physical therapist or occupational therapist can be a good starting point, and as always, check with your doctor to ensure that starting on a new exercise plan is appropriate for you.

What This Means For You

Recent research suggests high-intensity exercise, even with impact, could be beneficial for bone health as you age, as long as you adopt a gradual approach.

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  1. Suominen TH, Alén M, Törmäkangas T, et al. Regular strength and sprint training counteracts bone aging: a 10‐year follow‐up in male masters athletes. JBMR Plus. Published online May 24, 2021. doi:10.1002/jbm4.10513

  2. Suominen TH, Korhonen MT, Alén M, et al. Effects of a 20-week high-intensity strength and sprint training program on tibial bone structure and strength in middle-aged and older male sprint athletes: a randomized controlled trial. Osteoporos Int. 2017;28(9):2663-2673. doi:10.1007/s00198-017-4107-z

  3. Ramirez-Campillo R, Andrade DC, García-Pinillos F, Negra Y, Boullosa D, Moran J. Effects of jump training on physical fitness and athletic performance in endurance runners: A meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. Published online May 6, 2021. doi:10.1080/02640414.2021.1916261

  4. Watson SL, Weeks BK, Weis LJ, Harding AT, Horan SA, Beck BR. High-intensity resistance and impact training improves bone mineral density and physical function in postmenopausal women with osteopenia and osteoporosis: the LIFTMOR randomized controlled trial. J Bone Miner Res. 2018;33(2):211-220. doi:10.1002/jbmr.3284