Exercise for bones

Bone is a living tissue that reacts to the forces we put upon it by growing stronger – much like our muscles.

An active lifestyle, especially for children when bones are still growing, is key to help bones stay stronger throughout life.

The most effective kind of exercise for increasing and maintaining bone strength is weight-bearing exercise - any kind of physical activity where you are supporting the weight of your own body, such as jogging, aerobics, tennis, dancing and brisk walking.

Resistance exercise is also thought to benefit our bones, due to the pressure it puts on our bones via our tendons and ligaments.

In addition to benefiting our bones, getting into good habits with exercise will help to keep us strong, in good balance and with quicker reflexes, lowering our chance of falling – a common cause of broken bones in later life.

You can find out more about exercise and osteoporosis by downloading our leaflet.

Exercising if you have osteoporosis

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Introduction

Everyone knows the old adage that exercise is good for you. It can certainly make you feel better and has been linked positively with many aspects of our general health, including the strength of our bones.

This page will be useful if you:

  • Wish to use appropriate exercise to help prevent osteoporosis and fragile bones.
  • Have been told you have fragile bones or have had a diagnosis of osteoporosis following a bone density scan and want information about appropriate exercise.
  • Have broken bones as a result of osteoporosis and want to help prevent further fractures and reduce pain through exercise.

Exercise recommendations

Children should undertake 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each day.

Adults should be doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity at least five days a week (or 150 minutes or more in total). They should also undertake physical activity to improve muscle strength on at least two days a week.

Older adults (over the age of 65) who are at risk of falls should also incorporate specific exercises to improve balance and co-ordination on at least two days a week and reduce the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods.

(Department of Health 2009 and 2011 recommendations from the Chief Medical Officer)

Definitions

Physical activity is considered to be any muscular movement beyond resting levels. It is an all-encompassing concept that includes any functional activities of daily living or planned leisure pursuits (exercise and sport).

Exercise is typically a planned and/or structured physical activity that has an aim. The aim is usually to satisfy a physical, psychological or social need or often a mixture of all three.

Exercise and bone strength

Bone is a scaffold that supports the body against the forces of gravity and resists the pull of the muscles to allow movement. These loads and forces ensure that the skeleton remains able to resist the everyday burdens imposed upon it. Bone is a living tissue that reacts to increases in loads and forces by growing stronger. It does this all the time, so exercise will only increase bone strength if it increases the loading above normal levels. Younger, active people produce more new bone tissue than they lose, and therefore their bone density increases. Generally we achieve maximum bone density and strength (peak bone mass) around the age of 30. Bone density gradually begins to decline as we age, and most of us also become less active. For women, bone loss is usually most rapid during the first few years after menopause. Exercise, healthy eating and other lifestyle changes can slow the bone loss that usually occurs as we age and may help to reduce the risk of our bones breaking.

If you are new to exercise or thinking of starting something new, choose an activity that is compatible with your lifestyle, that you enjoy and that is effective for improving bone strength. Not all forms of exercise stimulate bone. Exercise that is useful for reducing the risk of heart disease will not necessarily build bone density. Swimming and cycling, for example, are excellent forms of exercise for improving the fitness and function of the heart and lungs, but these activities are not weight-bearing and do not affect bone density.

Weight-bearing exercise: any exercise in which you are supporting your own body weight through your feet and legs (or hands and arms).

Regular exercise is important throughout life, regardless of your age. The benefits in post-menopausal women and men over 50 are very well documented and will be particularly relevant to readers of this booklet. Exercise in these groups has been shown to:

  • Minimise bone loss and possibly reduce the risk of broken bones
  • Increase muscle strength
  • Improve balance
  • Improve your sense of wellbeing
  • Improve cognitive (brain) function
  • Make you better able to carry out daily tasks and activities
  • Maintain or improve posture
  • Relieve or decrease pain associated with other conditions such as osteoarthritis
  • Reduce the risk of falls
  • Reduce the risk of many medical conditions