Use It or Lose It: Osteoporosis and Exercise

Osteoporosis weightlifting graphicOsteoporosis is a disease in which bones become thin and brittle. The weakened bones are more likely to break, sometimes with little or no trauma, especially the bones of the wrists, hips and spine. These fractures can lead to severe pain, loss of height, and permanent disability. Although osteoporosis primarily affects those over 60, the time to start thinking about prevention is much earlier; even children can take steps to reduce the risk of this disease.

Healthy bones are continuously broken down and rebuilt, gaining mass when the rate of rebuilding exceeds the rate of breaking down. Bones reach their greatest mass around age 30, and usually start to lose mass sometime after age 35. The thicker your bones are at their peak, the less likely they are to get too thin when you’re older. While you can’t add mass after bone thickness peaks, you can take steps to avoid losing the mass you have.

Weight-bearing exercise increases bone mass in those who are young enough to build bone. Walking, running and stair climbing are everyday activities that require your bones to support your weight. A diet with sufficient calcium and vitamin D is also necessary for building bones. Once you’ve passed the age where you can add mass, it’s vital to continue weight-bearing exercise in order to keep from losing too much of the bone you have.

Risk factors for osteoporosis include a family history of the disease, lack of exercise, weighing less than 127 pounds, getting too little calcium and vitamin D, and excessive cola drinking. Women are four times more likely than men to get osteoporosis.

For those who already have osteoporosis, exercise is a good way to improve balance, which can prevent falls that might break weakened bones. Walking is a good choice, because it brings weight to bear on the bones without the added impact of an activity like running, which could stress weakened bones to the point of breaking. Strength training can also help slow mineral loss, but people with osteoporosis may need to avoid activities that stress the spine, such as excessive forward bending and heavy lifting. A physical therapist can design a strength-training program that will allow someone with osteoporosis to exercise safely.