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Exercising to Build Strong Bones

Use the LIVE Approach

-- By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Behavior Expert
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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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • 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! - 8/27/2013 8:00:47 AM
  • 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. - 5/23/2013 7:01:11 AM
  • @ Lazybutt: You can actually buy Comfrey leaf and powder at
    . 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. - 4/10/2012 10:26:30 AM
  • 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! - 8/25/2011 1:13:56 PM
  • i wish I knew about this when I was in High school! Its when I first broke a bone! - 8/25/2011 1:05:01 PM
    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. - 8/25/2011 1:00:31 PM
  • 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. - 8/25/2011 11:30:43 AM
  • I was diagnosed 2 years ago with osteopenia and come from a family with a history osteoporosis. This was a great informative article! - 8/25/2011 8:30:08 AM
    Great article. Thank you very much. I have Crohn's disease and am treated with prednisolone, which can cause osteoporosis. So I am always looking for ways to counteract this and improve my bone density. I previously thought all exercise helped, but was interested to learn about the gravity thing. So glad I have taken up running! - 8/25/2011 2:18:51 AM
    I use my hands to get into and out of chairs/seats because of severe knee pain with bone-on-bone arthritis. I keep doing my physical therapy exercises but it doesn't seem to be helping much. I'll keep at it.

    Terrific article. I think Dean's articles are the best on Spark! - 7/7/2011 7:06:16 PM
  • I was recently diagnosed with osteopenia...than
    k you, thank you, thank you for this article! - 6/22/2011 9:38:20 PM
  • Interesting article. Actually, osteoporosis is one of the few conditions where being THIN is a risk factor, in addition to a number of others. Mine was that I'd been on steroids off and on throughout my life, for control of Crohn's disease. Something to think about for budding athletes who think steroids will help them bulk up. True, those are different steroids, but the effects on bones are the same.
    You can find more info here:

    - 8/7/2010 8:59:07 AM
  • Having just tripped and fallen this evening, I can testify of the accuracy of Dean's article. I fell flat on my face on the driveway and only have a couple of abrasions on my hand. If I was still in my 230 pounds days, I would have probable been much worse.

    I really liked the information about bones being made up of living cells that are constantly being replaced and the more exercise we do, the more active and stronger these new cells become. I'll remind myself of that during my strength training tomorrow morning with a sore body! - 3/17/2010 11:08:43 PM
  • GREAT ARTICLE! I hadn't seen some of the ideas presented in this article so thank you. I was very interested to learn that speed walking on a flat surface is not very beneficial as a load bearing exercise and that getting in and out of chairs without using my arms would be a good habit to adopt. Thanks again. - 3/10/2010 12:27:52 PM
  • I've noticed that my ankles seem to be weak. Will my workouts (similar to what you have mentioned here) help with this? Should I be looking for exercises that target my ankles? - 2/7/2010 11:12:46 AM
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