Bolster Your Bones with These Weight-Bearing Exercises
By Adrienne Hollander, MD, Virtua Rheumatologist
Throughout life, women are cautioned by their doctors to keep their bones strong by eating calcium-rich foods or by taking calcium supplements. That’s because women are more likely than men to develop a chronic condition called osteoporosis, which causes your bones to become weak, brittle and more likely to break as you age.
Although you can’t control some risk factors for osteoporosis—such as being a woman, your age, your family history and your body frame—you may be able to make healthy lifestyle choices that reduce your risk.
In addition to diet, one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk for developing osteoporosis is with weight-bearing exercise. Weight-bearing exercise is any exercise that requires your skeleton to support your body weight.
Here’s what you need to know, as well some easy ideas for incorporating weight-bearing exercise into your daily routine (hint: walk around more).
How does osteoporosis affect my bones?
Osteoporosis decreases bone mass and density and makes your bones more fragile. When your bones become fragile, you’re at greater risk for fractures or breaks.
Most people with healthy bones only get fractures from traumatic falls, collisions or other serious accidents. However, people with osteoporosis often develop non-traumatic fractures, meaning that they break bones during minor falls or while performing normal activities, such as bending or sitting—or even coughing or sneezing.
How can osteoporosis affect my quality of life?
Osteoporosis fractures in older people, which commonly occur in the spine, hips and wrists, can impact quality of life. In some cases, osteoporosis fractures start a cycle of physical decline that can result in a life-changing loss of independence, and even death.
For example, studies show that 20-24 percent of people who break a hip will die within a year of the fracture. People who have hip fractures and survive their first year often lose the ability to perform normal daily tasks. And, as many as 60 percent need assistance a year later.
How does weight-bearing exercise fight osteoporosis?
Weight-bearing exercises—like walking, running, hiking, dancing and aerobics—require your skeleton to support your body weight. When your skeleton holds your body weight, it gives your bones a signal to get stronger. The way your heel hits the ground while walking—called your “heel strike”—also sends strengthening signals to your bones.
Although exercises such as biking and swimming are great for improving endurance and cardiovascular health, they're not weight-bearing exercises. That’s because the bike or the water in the pool are supporting your body weight, not your skeleton.
Many people confuse weight-bearing exercise with “lifting weights,” or resistance training. Resistance training can be beneficial in strengthening your muscles so they can better support your bones and make you less likely to sustain a bone injury. Resistance training—as well as types of exercise that focus on flexibility and balance, such as stretching, yoga, and tai chi—also can help reduce your fall risk.
Starting a weight-bearing exercise routine when you’re young will help prevent osteoporosis as you age. But, weight-bearing exercises will still improve your bone strength even if you already have an osteoporosis diagnosis.
How can I include weight-bearing exercises in my routine?
Finding time to do weight-bearing exercises can be challenging but it's important to make it a priority. Here are some things you can do to include weight-bearing exercises in your daily activities:
Aim for 10,000 steps a day
Walking is one of the best weight-bearing exercises for building strong bones. Tracking your steps using a pedometer or smartphone app is a great way to ensure that you’re hitting your daily target. If you’re having a hard time meeting your 10,000-step goal, try parking further away from work or the store, taking the stairs or walking on your lunch break.
Carry light weights in a backpack
Adding a small amount of weight—up to 4 pounds—to a small backpack and wearing it throughout the day can help you build bone strength. By adding the extra weight while walking around, you’re sending increased bone-strengthening signals to your skeleton. However, be sure that the backpack is positioned in the middle of your back just below your shoulder blades to avoid straining your neck and shoulders.
Make it fun
Weight-bearing exercises aren’t limited to walking and jogging. Zumba, ballroom dancing, racquet sports, skiing, step aerobics and hiking are great ways to try something new while incorporating weight-bearing activity. But, before trying a new type of exercise, check with your doctor to make sure that it’s safe for you—especially if you already have an osteoporosis diagnosis.
Find the right intensity and impact level for you
One of the best things about weight-bearing exercises is that there are so many to choose from, which makes it easy to find exercises that are suitable for just about every fitness and mobility level. Whether you’re looking to prevent osteoporosis or have already been diagnosed, chances are that you can find a weight-bearing exercise that’s right for you.
If you’re looking for high-impact, weight-bearing exercises, try step aerobics, racquet sports, running sports, jumping rope or jogging. Lower-impact weight-bearing exercises include walking, gentle floor aerobics, ballroom dancing and hiking. And, you can adjust the intensity of many weight-bearing exercises to fit your fitness level by going at a faster or slower pace, as needed.
Incorporating weight-bearing exercises into your routine can help you maintain strong and healthy bones as you age.
Updated June 19, 2018