Osteoporosis & Exercise for Healthier Bones

As the night sky holds a reminder for healthy bones, perhaps we should consider a constellation of stars named ‘Osteoporosis’.

There hardly seems a connection though to the strong imagery conjured by the likes of Taurus, Scorpio and Aries, as ‘Osteoporosis’ translates from its Greek origin as “porous bones”. Instead we find the connection via the weightless space that hold these stars. Space should be the perfect reminder of what we have here on earth, that can contribute to keeping osteoporosis at bay.

Gravity and bone density

Astronauts have long been aware of the risks that space travel can present. Being in space for long periods, with their body’s floating in microgravity, muscle loss is an obvious hazard. Yet this lack of gravity also impacts upon bone density. Down here on earth, the fact that we work against gravity allows us to maintain muscle mass and bone density, up to a certain age.

As we become older though, our bodies will naturally lose their strength. Loss of muscle, flexibility and other functions will be most apparent. Our bones however are out of sight and mind, which is why, like the astronauts above, we should pay special attention to the health of our skeleton.

Keeping our bones healthy

Gravity alone plays a part in bone development, but just like muscles, your bones also need a workout to stay strong.

Bones will benefit most from weight bearing exercises throughout your life. Any exercise where your body is forced to work against gravity as you move, will prompt the body to make new bone and increase bone mass.

Depending on your stage in life and level of fitness this can range from gentle activities such as yoga, Tai Chi and walking, through to dancing, tennis and other activities that involve running. These may seem simple but there have been studies to suggest for example that yoga appears to raise bone density in the spine and the femur safely. You can even incorporate exercise into your daily routine by walking part of the way to work or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

Another key contributor towards osteoporosis prevention is the use of strength and resistance training. This is the use of weight machines, free weights such as barbells, or your own body weight, for example squats, push-ups and chin-ups. In addition to this, resistance bands (that act like a giant rubber band), provide continuous resistance throughout a movement and are more portable than weights.

Resistance training increases muscle strength, and by making your muscles place load on your bones, will in turn increase bone mass. It is suggested that of all the exercises you can do, ‘research indicates that resistance training may have a more profound site specific effect than aerobic exercise’. It also has the added benefit of improving strength, balance and increased muscle mass to offset the risk factors of osteoporosis.

As an extension of this training, anything that avoids a sedentary lifestyle will benefit your bones. Even exercises such as swimming and cycling that are not weight bearing, can still benefit bone mass.

Of course to compliment this active lifestyle, and the benefits to bone health it provides, it is important to have a healthy diet. Most of us are aware that calcium is essential for healthy bones, so eating the dairy food or tofu that provides this mineral, is recommended. Being undernourished should be avoided, especially in adolescence as this can effect bone density as it has an effect on hormone levels. Other unhealthy habits such as smoking and the excessive consumption of alcohol increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Other than gravity a good dose of vitamin D every day is good for bone health. In summer generally a few minutes every day outdoors and in winter up to a quarter of an hour will provide what your body needs. For those whose skin type makes them more susceptible to sun damage, it is worth noting that people who exercise vigorously have higher levels of vitamin D. So increasing the intensity of your workout can replace time spent in the sun.

Unfortunately there are other factors that will work against your best efforts such as illness, disease, cancer, your family history and the inevitability of ageing. Your doctor will be able at the very least to assist you in the management of these contributors to osteoporosis and also identify other areas specific to your age or gender. For example a drop in oestrogen in women can cause a loss in bone strength, and subsequently bone density may be decreased if menstrual periods are infrequent, late or absent, and if menopause has begun.

What are the early signs of bone loss?

A bone mineral density (BMD) screening is the most reliable diagnostic test for osteoporosis. In general it is women over the age of 65 who need to be screened, are postmenopausal or have more than one of the aforementioned risk factors such as a family history.

Men are at less risk but as with a women’s reduction of oestrogen after menopause, testosterone levels may diminish due to obesity, diabetes, medication or chronic medical conditions and disorders. This hormonal change in men may also happen naturally as a man ages.

Ideally screening should occur before signs are evident, but as bone loss often begins without any noticeable symptoms, osteoporosis has been aptly named the “silent disease”. The biggest indicator that bone disease is present is unfortunately after a bone is fractured easily after a mild to moderate trauma. Other signs may be from back pain, a stooped posture or a reduction in your height over a period of time.

Managing osteoporosis

If you do develop osteoporosis then there are other things to consider in the management of the disease. As osteoporosis means that there is a lower bone mass, there it the increased risk of fractures, primarily of the hip, spine, and wrist.

Taking care of yourself now that your bones are reduced in strength will mean incorporating balance exercises to keep you steady on your feet. Reducing the risks of falls can be achieved through core strengthening offered by clinical pilates or through exercises prescribed by a physiotherapist. Weight exercises and resistance training can also be incorporated into hydrotherapy where the pool environment can create a safe and more stable environment with which to build balance, strength and mobility.

Discussing these options with your physiotherapist will be of use as they will can provide feedback as to what will best suit your needs based on your musculoskeletal history. Further advice based on you complete medical history, can be sought from your GP as medication may also be required.

It is also worth investigating how to set yourself up for a steadier day. Starting with yourself, a good pair of shoes can make a difference to your stability. Also whether or not you choose to take up the Rumba, Waltz, Tango or Cha Cha as part of your load bearing exercise routine, wearing dance shoes can help keep your feet nice and nimble. Having a house clear of obstacles and having hand rails installed in bathrooms or next to stairs, covering regularly used tiled and polished floor areas with non slip rubber mats, can aid your stability and injury prevention.

There are also organisations that can provide more general advice, such as Osteoporosis Australia where support can be found from other people with a similar condition, through membership of the forum.

The one thing to keep in mind, whether young or old, astronaut or not, is that gravity can be your bones best friend.