Osteoporosis is a medical condition in which bones become fragile and brittle. There is an overall decrease in bone density, which can put you at a greater risk for fractures. Osteoporosis affects 50% of men and women over the age of 50 in the United States, making it a significant public health problem in this country.
While all types of exercises are good for your health, bones specifically require weight-bearing exercises to become stronger. These are exercises that you do while supporting your own weight (as opposed to sitting on a bike or swimming). Some examples of weight-bearing exercise are elliptical training machines, fast walking (outside or on a treadmill), low-impact aerobics, and stair-step machines. Weight-bearing is a critical stimulus for making bones stronger and is the keystone to an exercise-based program for osteoporosis.
Another important type of exercise is strength training. Muscles attach into bones—by strengthening the muscles, we can make the bone more dense where they attach. Weight training is an integral part of increasing bone density. You can strengthen your muscles by lifting free weights or using weight machines or exercise bands.
Improving Posture and Balance
While exercise assists in improving bone density, it will also aid in improving your balance and posture and decreasing your risk for falls.
Postural awareness is the first step. Erect sitting and standing posture are important to limit the effects of osteoporosis. Even if your strength is good, you must be consciously aware of your posture. Awareness of your body mechanics during daily activities and while exercising are also important.
Other forms of exercise can be beneficial in improving balance and posture. These include yoga, tai chi, and Pilates. It is important to tell your instructor if you have osteoporosis as some movements may not be appropriate.
Be Aware of Risky Activities
If you have osteoporosis, you should be aware of activities or positions that may put you at risk. Some common examples are activities that cause you to bend and twist your spine, especially while picking up an object. This could include certain golf motions or something as simple as bending down to touch your toes. Don’t completely avoid activity; rather, be aware of the risk factors. Your doctor and/or physical therapist can help you modify movements that may reduce the risks of certain activities.
General Rules To Consider
Always use the rule of “hurt not harm." “Hurt” would consist of an awareness of soreness that does not increase and does not remain more than 15 to 20 minutes after finishing the activity. This can also be considered “strain” and is common during exercise. “Harm," on the other hand, would be a soreness that continues to increase during activity and remains longer than 20 minutes afterwards.
Progression of an exercise program should be methodical. You should not have any sudden changes in the overall volume of your exercise (ie, significant session or weekly increases in total time of activity). Again, a physical therapist can guide you with the appropriate progression of your exercise program.
Finally, a simple caveat: When in doubt, consult your physical therapist!
Osteoporosis can respond very favorably to exercise. Implementing a plan of weight-bearing exercise, strength training, good nutrition, and postural awareness can have significant long-term benefits for those with osteoporosis.