The World Health Organization estimates that there are currently 200 million people suffering from osteoporosis worldwide. The disease which is part of the ageing process is a result of loss of calcium and other minerals from the bones, making them susceptible to fractures and breaks. A lot of previous research into this area focused on women and men after the age of 65 as well as the crucial developmental years before and after puberty. However, new research has now indicated that exercise in the early 20's can also assist bone growth and reduce the risk of fractures later in life. Don't panic if you're not in your early 20's like us (ahem) because the study has implications that are beneficial to all age groups, male and female and it's never too late to start exercising!
Osteoporosis in Men and Women - Main Risk Factors
- Inadequate Physical Exercise
- Low Calcium Intake
- Increasing Age
- Low Testosterone Levels
- Certain Drugs (corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, heparin, excessive thyroid replacement)
- Reduced Levels of hormone Estrogen after menopause
- Excessive alcohol (interferes with body's ability to absorb calcium)
- Low Vitamin D Levels
Based on the findings of a five year study in Sweden of 833 men between the ages of 19 and 24 all participants had their bone mass measured in their hips, lumbar spine arms and lower legs at the start of the study. These areas are prone to degeneration as we age and hence account for the high number of fractures in these areas as we age. Over the five years participants had their type and frequency of physical activity recorded. At the end all participants had their bone mass measured again. Published in the Journal of Bone Density the study observed a direct association between increased physical activity and favourable developments in areas such as total body bone mineral content, plus lumbar spine and total hip areal bone mineral density. Indeed, the men who maintained high levels of physical activity also developed larger and thicker bones in their lower arms and legs. Conversely, the men who remained sedentary over the five years lost around 2.1 per cent of the bone mass in the hip - the bone that is most likely to break in later life!
Osteoporosis and Load-Bearing Activity
It is clear from the study conducted in Sweden that the effects of osteoporosis can be reduced by physical activity. But what activity is best? The study showed that it was the load-bearing sports such as basketball and volleyball, followed by soccer and tennis that seemed best at encouraging the body to form new bone tissue. Activities that do not put an increased load on the bones such as swimming and cycling do not really assist in bone strength despite their other health benefits. If sports such as basketball and tennis have an impact on bone density then it seems logical that any other sport/activity that increases the load through the skeletal system would have equal if not greater benefits.
Implications for Exercise Prescription
Clearly, as the study demonstrates, to reduce the effects of osteoporosis it is essential that any exercise programme includes weight-bearing activity. If load bearing sports such basketball and tennis have a significant effect on bone density then it seems clear that weight-training or resistance training would have even greater benefits as they place even greater stress through the skeletal system. However, not only will these activities help improve your bone strength, they will also help increase your muscle strength and functional capacity resulting in better balance, coordination and reduce the likelihood of falls. So, ensure you choose some of the following apparatus in your exercise programme.
- Barbells and Dumbbells
- Elastic Resistance Bands
- Resistance Machines
- Body Weight Resistance
Osteoporosis and Nutrition
A poor diet is also a huge risk factor for developing osteoporosis. The most important nutrients are Vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D allows the bones to absorb calcium. The primary source of natural Vitamin D is exposure to sunlight, therefore whilst too much sunlight can be dangerous it is essential we allow a certain amount of exposure to the sun's rays or alternatively supplement with Vitamin D. Good sources of Vitamin D in the diet are
Good sources of calcium in the diet are
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt)
The sooner in life load-bearing activity is adopted then the greater the likelihood that osteoporosis will be prevented in later life. Combined with appropriate nutrition that ensures enough of the building blocks of bone tissue are consumed then there is no reason why the high incidence of fractures around the hip in older age should not be significantly reduced. Ensuring your exercise programme has enough weight-bearing activity is essential.