How Exercise Can Improve Bone Density

As many as 3 million people in the United Kingdom suffer from low bone mass (many unknowingly), placing them at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis — a debilitating disease characterized by weak, brittle bones. In many cases, a lack of exercise is at least partly to blame. Oftentimes, it’s wholly responsible.

And that’s why one of the things I try to educate people about now is the importance of exercise to improve on every level, including bone density.

Like muscle, bone becomes stronger when challenged. Scientists have long known that it responds to physical stress — the radiating impact of a heel striking pavement, the repeated tug of a muscle contracting against resistance, the torsional force of a body winding up for a kick — by reinforcing its internal structure and remodelling itself to better handle that stress when challenged. But what has eluded researchers until recently is the type, intensity, and duration of exercise that works best for shifting bone building into high gear.

Bone is a living tissue with a rigid, honeycomb-like structure comprised of collagen and calcium. Like every other tissue in the body, it has nerves, blood vessels, and cells, and is in a constant state of “remodelling,” breaking down and rebuilding itself like an endless construction project. Indeed, about 10 percent of the average adult’s bone mass is remodelled each year.

Sometime between the ages of 25 and 30, the body achieves peak bone mass and remodelling plateaus for about a decade. Bone-strengthening exercise is important throughout the lifecycle, but during periods of skeletal growth, exercise is especially effective at increasing bone mass and strength.

That’s important because the more bone you build before the age of 30, the more you’ll have in the bank when bone density begins its slow, steady decline at around the age of 40. The process is hastened in women thanks to a decline in estrogen (a key bone mass regulator) that occurs during menopause, but it can have serious consequences for men as well. After the age of 50, approximately one in two women and one in four men will break a bone — usually in the hips, spine, or wrists.

Even after skeletal growth stops, exercise can still increase bone mass and slow the rate of age-related bone loss.

In short, it’s never too late to start exercising to preserve bone density, and once you do, it’s not something you ever want to stop.

How Exercise Strengthens Bones

For exercise to affect bone density, it needs to be high impact and weight bearing. That’s why activities like weightlifting, and high intensity interval (HIIT) can have a profound effect on bone formation — they increase the load on your bones, forcing them to adapt so that they can better tolerate the strain imposed by those activities. It’s also why activities like walking, swimming, and stationary cycling (spinning), while effective for weight loss and improving cardiovascular fitness, have minimal impact on bone health. Being non-weight-bearing, they don’t increase the load on your bones, and thus don’t provide enough stress to cause an uptick in remodelling.

When you lift a weight, stretch a resistance band, jump (and land) repeatedly, you create a compressive force that causes fluid to flow within your bone tissue. Cells called osteocytes detect that flow, and trigger an increase in bone formation as a result. The greater the strain, the greater the exercise’s potential impact on bone remodelling.

Weight-bearing exercise can also stimulate bone formation in a way that is similar to how it stimulates muscle growth: by damaging bone tissue on the cellular level. This “micro-trauma” initiates a healing response, but the body doesn’t just repair the damage — it reinforces the bone’s collagen and calcium matrix to make it stronger than it was before.

The Importance of Nutrition

Proper nutrition plays a key role in the recovery process as well. But it’s not just about consuming the recommended 1,000mg of calcium per day or getting enough of the vitamins and nutrients that help you store it (such as vitamin D, potassium, and manganese) — you also have to make sure you’re consuming enough total daily calories. Researchers have found that some runners’ bone density is no greater than that of people who don’t exercise at all, and one of the primary reasons is that many runners don’t take in enough calories to meet their energy needs.

Like every other fitness goal, building stronger bones is worth doing. Many people consider increased bone density a fringe benefit of exercise, but the reality is that it’s right up there with losing weight and becoming stronger — especially when it comes to ageing.

for more info on how my programs can help send me an email

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