Physical activity in any form is good, but when it comes to maintaining bone health, research suggests moderate exercises like walking and water aerobics are not enough.
A recent study by Deakin University researchers finds that a variety of weight-bearing exercises is necessary for both bone and muscle health, to help reduce risk of falls, fractures and osteoporosis in older adults.
“Your bones are there to support your muscles to create movement, so if you have low bone strength, you’re at increased risk of having a fracture,” explained Professor Robin Daly to Community Care Review.
Around 90% of older people who fall over end up with osteoporotic fractures. In 2011 more than a million Australians were diagnosed with osteoporosis and nearly five and a half million had osteopenia, putting them at risk of fragility fracture.
With an aging population, it’s estimated that by 2021, fractures will occur every three and a half minutes and three million Australians will have osteoporosis-related conditions, leading to a downward spiral of poor health and quality of life along with mounting health care costs.
Prevention is therefore critical.
“Strong bones for life”
Daly’s team created an 18-month community program called Osteo-cise: Strong Bones for Life for community dwelling adults aged 60 or older, providing 12 months of structured, multi-modal exercises along with education and behaviour change modules.
Half of the 162 volunteers were randomised to take part in group fitness sessions at a health and fitness centre three times a week. The other half were given information about osteoporosis and both groups received vitamin D and calcium supplements.
After 12 months, those taking part in the Osteo-cise program had vastly greater improvements in bone density, muscle power, strength and balance. Daly says other programs tend to improve one of these but addressing them all is important to prevent risk of falls and fractures.
Their multifaceted program focussed on weight-bearing exercises and a method of resistance training that optimises muscle power – the body’s ability to do fast and forceful movements which is needed for balance, mobility and reaction time to prevent falls.
“Such rapid and forceful movements also place high loads on bones which may help to improve their strength,” co-author Dr Jenny Gianoudis told The Senior.
Daly explains, “Bones are alive and they like to be stressed, so when you do activities that put strain on them, the bone cells get excited and form new cells.”
The best exercises
As noted by America’s National Institute of Health, the best exercises to stimulate bone cell growth involve weight-bearing and resistance.
Weight-bearing exercises such as hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, playing tennis, skipping, stair climbing and dancing make you work against gravity.
Resistance training for bone health involves weights, particularly focussing on the muscles around the hips and spine during fast, short sessions twice a week rather than one long session.
Gentler exercises such as swimming, walking and riding can help strengthen muscles and are good for heart health, but are not as good for bones.
It’s important to build up to more rigorous workouts under trained supervision, and work to a level that suits the individual.
And it’s never too late; even people with limited range of movement and dementia can derive significant benefits from physically tailored exercise programs.