Fitness Articles

Exercising to Build Strong Bones

Use the LIVE Approach

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You know your heart, lungs, and muscles all need regular exercise to stay healthy and fit. But did you know that’s just as true for your bones, too? Whether you’re already facing bone-density problems like osteoporosis or osteopenia (pre-osteoporosis), or trying to make sure you don’t have these problems later on, regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your bones.

But not just any old workout boasts bone benefits. The best exercise for building bone density and strength follows the LIVE approach:

L is for Load-bearing. Weight-bearing exercise that requires your muscles to work against gravity by moving your own weight (or added weight) up and down has the most bone-building benefits.

I is for Intensity. The more weight you move, and the more vigorously you move it, the more that exercise will strengthen your bones.

V is for Variety. Exercises that involve as many different muscles in many different functional movement patterns are best.

E is for Enjoyable. Let’s face it. If you don’t like your exercises, you’re not likely to do them as much as you need to for best results.

While that may sound simple, right now you’re probably asking yourself, "But how do I put these principles into action? How much load, intensity and variety do I really need? What kinds of exercises should I do or not do?" Or for some of you who already have osteoporosis, "How do I know when I’m pushing myself hard enough to do some good without causing further damage?”

In order to pick the exercises that will work best for you and your particular concerns, you need to understand how exercise actually affects your bones.

If you’ve never had the chance to look at bone under a microscope, you might imagine that bones resemble the lumber that holds up the walls and floor of your house. But in reality, your bones are very active biologically (like your muscles and organs), and they respond to exercise pretty much the same way your muscles and cardiovascular system do. The more stress you put on your bones, the stronger they will get—just as your muscles respond to lifting weights by getting stronger, and your heart and lungs respond to cardio by becoming stronger and more efficient.

Like everything else in your body, your bones are made up of cells that are constantly dying and being replaced. Some of these cells, called osteoblasts, are bone-building cells whose job it is to replace lost bone, and make sure your bones are strong enough to meet the regular demands you put on them. Osteoblasts are activated and stimulated when your muscles pull on them to produce movement. To make a long story short, the more stress you put your bones under with load-bearing movement, the more active your osteoblasts are, and the denser and stronger your bones become. If you don’t stimulate your osteoblasts to keep adding new bone material, your bones slowly lose density and eventually may become porous and susceptible to injury from relatively minor stresses.

If you think this sounds a lot like how your muscles get stronger after you “injure” them during your strength training workouts, you’re exactly right. And just like you need to increase the demands you put on your muscles to keep improving your strength, you need to keep challenging your osteoblasts to build new bone. Doing the same old thing over and over again will put them to sleep. That’s why intensity and variety are important aspects of your bone-building program.

How to Exercise for Bone-Building
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at which kinds of exercise are best at stimulating your osteoblasts and building strong bones.

*Note: If you already have been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia, you should ask your doctor which exercises are safe for you first. Although load-bearing exercise will almost always be an important part of your treatment plan, you may need to avoid certain high impact exercises such as jumping, hopping, or other activities where you “land hard,” as sudden force can cause stress fractures in already weakened bones. Also, it’s very important to include balance training in your routine.

To apply the load-bearing principle most effectively, choose exercises that involve moving your body weight (or added weight) up and down against gravity. Examples of load-bearing aerobic exercises (which will also elevate your heart rate) include:
  • Running and jogging
  • Stair climbing
  • Step aerobics
  • Jumping rope and jumping jacks
  • Dancing (or other choreography) that involves hopping, jumping, stomping, or skipping
  • Tennis
  • Walking or hiking uphill
While low-impact exercises such as swimming, walking on flat terrain, and bike riding can be great aerobic exercise, studies indicate that they may not do much for your bone density. Likewise, it’s not clear whether using exercise machines that help you move your weight (like the elliptical machine) help improve bone density as well as the non-assisted exercises listed above. In some cases, especially if you have to avoid high impact activity due to osteoporosis or some other problem, using an exercise bike with added resistance can work well.

Of course, formal strength training is an excellent way to build bone density. The best approach is to use a weight heavy enough that you can only do seven to eight repetitions in good form. When you can handle 12 repetitions with that weight, it’s time to increase the weight. Also, focus on lifting slowly, using a slow count of eight, and with good technique. Lift the weight up for four counts and—this is especially important—lower it down to the start position for four counts without allowing the weight to rest on your body or the machine between repetitions. (If you haven’t been using this approach, you can expect some muscle soreness at first.)

As with any workout program, exercising for bone-building requires lots of variety. Most exercises only work one particular muscle group in one particular way. For bone-building results, try to involve as many muscles, angles and patterns of movement as possible. You don’t have to do this in every exercise session, but you should rotate to a new set of exercises every couple of weeks.

Finally, there are lots of bone-building activities you can include in your daily routine, even though they aren’t formal exercises. Gardening is one good example. Another is making a point of getting up out of your chair without using your hands or arms for assistance. If you can’t do this now, start practicing every day by first sitting on an extra cushion or a phone book, and practicing until you reduce the amount of weight you have to support with your hands. Then remove the cushion, and do the same until you don’t need to use your hands at all. Research shows that people who can get out of a chair without using their hands have a much lower incidence of balance problems and falls, which can be very serious for older people with osteoporosis.

Although osteoporosis is often considered an age-related problem, the foundation for this problem is often set much earlier. Research shows that a person's bone density at the ages of 25-35 plays a large role in determining whether her natural decline in bone density will cause problems associated with osteoporosis and osteopenia. So, don’t wait until you’ve already got problems before you start trying to manage them. What are you waiting for? With your doctor's advice, a bone-building diet, and these exercise suggestions, you're armed and ready to strengthen those bones. So turn off your computer and get out of your chair—without using your hands.

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Member Comments

  • I am 63 and had my first bone density test done last year. My NP had to call to double check as they said I had the bones of a 25 year old! Now my joints are bad with arthritis and I had a right knee replacement 3 years ago. BU this said, riding my bike for over 40 years has helped to make my bones good.
  • Thank you, very interesting. Too bad that all the 'load bearing' exercises require a person to walk or to be able to stand... those with foot complaints may have a problem with those. But glad to see there's other things we can do!
  • I am in the process of changing all of my exercise routines - away from aerobic, trying to incorporate more strength and balance. I'm 53, but am post-menopausal for 12 years now. Formally diagnosed this year with osteoporosis in left hip, neck and back (arthritis, too) - and osteopenia in other hip. I'm avoiding Foxamax --- hoping that changing my exericse and the Calcium/Vit D therapy helps me improve. I'm sad, because I used to do a LOT of gardening ... now, having two jobs keeps me inside most of the time. THANKS for the info and article!!
  • At turning 62 years old I just had my first bone density test. I have been a bike rider for years, riding approximately 50 miles per week. I do it simply to burn calories so I can eat more (I'm being honest) and stress relief (I have a pretty stressful family situation). My Nurse Practitioner was surprised with the results of the test and double checked the results before calling me. I have the bones of a less than 30 year old! I don't feel that young, but riding works!
  • Such good information from the comments as well as the article. Thanks to everyone.
  • They really need to update the information that they use to diagnose osteoporosis - the machines used today were created by the makers of Fosamax, we all know that is not good for you ( I dont' eat paint, do you ? ) IMHO there has to be a better honest way of diagnosing where big brother pharma company does not gain from our health issues ... Walking is the best form of weight bearing excersize there is, use walking poles, you'll use more muscle on those flat areas - use weights sporodically several times a day not just for 20 min 2 x a day - 5 minutes here and there is better - and avoid those activities that will cause injury.
  • SWAMPSPARROW
    Most of the first group of highly suggested exercises (running, jogging, jumping jacks, etc) were not knee joint friendly, especially if you have had a knee replacement. Among the specific suggestions, that basically leaves walking uphill (and presumably down as well?) and stationary bicycling with resistance). Without access to a gym, and perhaps using ankle weights and small dumbells, I wonder what specific in-house exercises might be helpful, if any, for building bone density.
  • Good information but the article left out Tai Chi as a great option for building bones. Many women, including me, have had our Dexa show increased bone density after a year of regular practice and it is low impact. It as also wonderful for improving balance!
  • Great article. I was told that me left knee was bone against bone in February. But I been taking calcium pills for nine years. My doctor vtold me to take them because I was getting older and I needed for my bones.
  • @ Lazybutt: You can actually buy Comfrey leaf and powder at www.herbalcom.com
    . They sell a large variety of herbs and herbal products. My naturopath/chirop
    ractor recommended the site to me and she tests everything on herself before she will recommend anything to her patients.
  • I wish the Government would allow us to buy Confrey leaf tea because that was how I had kept my bones strong and healed when I broke a bone (and it does work as needed) But not being able to tolerate milk and dairy and beef I now suffer that loss of bone! Just Because one idiotover doses on Comfrey the Government took it off the amrket! Just because one man died from it, they take it off the market, but I wonder how many people are disabled now because of not being able to buy comfrey to keep their bones healthy. I used to take comfrey to keep my bones strong now suffer with osteoporosis bones? I wonder how many other persons my age are dealing with osteoporosis bones due to the Governments ignorance about comfrey? Now Medicare users are relying on all kinds of prsthesis and surgery to help those who have bone loss. Government is paying for ist intrusion into peoples personal livesby added cost to Medicare!
  • i wish I knew about this when I was in High school! Its when I first broke a bone!
  • AZURE-SKY
    Lack of estrogen can also contribute to thinning bones. 13 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have chemo in addition to radiation and surgery. The chemo caused me to go into menopause, plus I was on medication to block any estrogen from getting into my cells. I was diagnosed with osteopenia & told to take 2 Calcium + Vit D supplelments, which I've done all these years. Several months after I went off the breast cancer medication I had another DEXA scan (bone density test) and my bone density actualy INCREASED - my bone density is now normal for my age (59) and I no longer have osteopenia.

    So, find out if any of your medications have any effect on bone density, and check with your doctor to see if you need to take calcium supplements.

    I switched from using the elliptical machine at the gym to working out with the Walk Away the Pounds videos from Leslie Sansone. The more advanced ones feature a bigger range of motion and light weights for strength training. The elliptical machine only provides a forward and backward motion, while the videos offer knee lifts, kick backs, side steps, etc. I also burn more calories with the videos than I did with the elliptical machine, even though I used a resistance program on it.
  • Good information. I eat very little dairy because of lactose-intoleran
    ce and while I try to get calcium any way I can, this article reminds me that there are additional things I can do to protect my bones. I don't run as much as I used to due to recent Plantar Fasciitis problems, and this article reminds me that I need to make more of an effort to find a way to do load bearing exercises.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

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