Regular exercise strengthens your heart and lungs, tones your muscles, and lowers your risk of heart disease and other ailments. But did you know that exercise is also good for your bones? Specifically, weight-bearing exercises—those that make your bones work harder against gravity, such as walking or climbing stairs—actually help your body grow denser and stronger bones over time and can reduce your risk of osteoporosis.
Experts recommend that you get at least 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise most days of the week to lower your risk of osteoporosisa disabling condition in which your bones lose density and strength, which makes them more likely to fracture.
Researchers have long known that people with diabetes are at increased risk of osteoporosis: Type 1 diabetes contributes directly to low bone density, and an important 2002 study at the University of California, San Diego, found that type 2 diabetes can increase the likelihood of fractures of the foot, hip and humerus bone of the arm.
"Exercise is a huge factor in preventing osteoporosis," says Julia Valentour, M.S., program director at the American Council on Exercise. "Almost everyone should be doing weight-bearing exercises, including people who are at risk for low bone density and fractures."
Exercising for Better Bone Density
When you put stress on a bone during exercise—whether you're taking a brisk walk around the block or playing professional football— bone cells respond by creating more bone tissue. The bone-building process is called osteogenesis, and tends to be site-specific, generating new bone tissue only in those areas directly affected by the exercise. That's why experts recommend you try a variety of weight-bearing exercises that will work bones in different parts of the body.
It's important that your doctor approves any strenuous weight-bearing exercise routine, especially if you're over 60 or have osteoporosis, osteopenia (mild bone loss) or arthritis. But research suggests that even lower-impact exercises—like walking, light weight lifting and most yoga poses—also help to build bone. A recent study of the effects of dieting and exercise on hip bone density found that those study participants who walked regularly built significantly more bone mass than those who simply lost weight. If you're able to work up to higher-impact activities—like running, jumping rope or aerobic dance— you'll build more bone density.
Certain resistance exercises, including calisthenics and resistance bands, build bone mass as long as they are exercises that make your body work against gravity, says Valentour. (In general, for instance, standing exercises are more effective than seated ones.) Resistance exercises cause your muscles to flex and strengthen, which in turn pulls on your bones, triggering osteogenesis.
Upper-body resistance training, such as light biceps curls and other moves that work your shoulders and arms, can be especially helpful because the bones of the upper body often don't benefit from popular low-impact weight-bearing exercises like walking.
Exercising Safely: Low Impact Exercises for Your Bones
Not everyone can, or should, lift 300 pounds or take up gymnastics (exercises that have been shown to significantly build bone mass). But for older adults or those with chronic illnesses, a lower-impact approach is perfectly appropriate and can be very effective. If your doctor agrees, get started with two easy exercises—Assisted Squats and Wall Pushups.
Step 1: Grab hold of a counter top or sink for stability.
Step 2: Keep your arms straight and at arm's length from the counter edge. Feet should be parallel to your hips, toes facing forward.
Step 3: Holding on to the counter, push your hips down and back as if you're trying to sit. Slowly lower down as far as you feel comfortable (ideally until your thighs are almost parallel to the floor).
Step 4: Slowly push up into a standing position. Repeat 8 to 10 times.
Step 1: Standing near a wall, extend your arms straight until your palms are up against the wall.
Step 2: Slowly bend your elbows until your face is close to the wall, then push away and go back to the standing position. Repeat 8 to 10 times.
Once you feel comfortable doing these easy weight-bearing exercises, consider joining a gym, where you'll find trainers on staff who can customize a safe and effective exercise routine that combines light free weights, stretches and aerobic exercises.
Get the Most Out of Bone-Building Exercises
Go For 30 Minutes To ensure that your bones receive enough "good stress" to trigger the generation of new bone tissue, aim for 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise a day, five to seven days a week.
Mix it up Combine different weight-bearing activities, such as walking, climbing stairs and lifting light weights, to strengthen the bones in your upper and lower body.
Start slowly if you're over 60 or have a chronic illness (or if you haven't exercised in months or years), get your doctor's permission and start with easy moves that feel comfortable. If you're able, increase the intensity of your workouts over time. Higher-impact, strenuous exercise builds more bone.
Don't give up "Many avoid exercising because they say they don't have the energy," says Julia Valentour, program director, American Council on Exercise. "In fact, exercise gives you energy and so many other benefits."
From our sister publication, Diabetes Focus, Spring 2011