If you want to keep your bones strong for life, it pays to start young. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that postmenopausal women who took part in weight-bearing sports as teens were likelier to have strong bones later in life than those who got little exercise. “Weight-bearing exercise in youth affects bone, and these effects may be preserved even after 40 years,” say the researchers.
Weighing in for stronger bones
Healthy bones depend on more than just calcium and vitamin D: to reach their full potential, bones need exercise. With weight-bearing exercise, the muscles pull on the bones, enhancing bone formation. When bones are not exposed to weight-bearing exercise, such as occurs with prolonged immobilization, they rapidly become weaker.
Investigators interviewed 46 middle-aged women about their participation in various sports during junior high and high school to assess the effects of weight-bearing exercise on bone health later in life.
Sixteen of the women had participated in high impact, weight-bearing sports such as tennis, volleyball, sprinting, basketball, handball, and softball, between ages 12 and 18. The other women either didn’t engage in any physical activity, or took part in low impact, non-weight-bearing sports like swimming. The women underwent dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the characteristics of bones in the low back and legs.
Women who were involved in weight-bearing sports as teenagers had healthier bones in the postmenopausal period, with higher bone mineral concentration and other indicators of bone strength compared with women who exercised lightly or not at all. None of the women were currently participating in weight-bearing sports, suggesting that their active teen years were at least partially responsible for their healthy bones.
It’s not too late to start building stronger bones
• In addition to the sports listed above, regular dancing, aerobics, hiking, jogging/running, jumping rope, stair climbing, and walking are all weight-bearing exercises that help build bone. If you have osteoporosis, check with your doctor to see which activities are best for you. Remember, the best way to build bones is to use your muscles. Exercises that are less effective for building bone mass, but are still great for other reasons, like strengthening the heart and circulatory system, include cycling, water aerobics, swimming, stretching, and flexibility exercises.
• Balance exercises can help prevent falls, which can be dangerous in people with weakened bones. To build your balance muscles, position yourself near a wall while standing on one foot (in case you need to catch yourself) and toss a bean bag back and forth with a partner; switch to the other leg and gradually increase the number of repetitions as you get more stable. Yoga and tai chi exercises have also been shown to improve balance and flexibility.
(Br J Sports Med 2008;doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.052308)
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND
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