Like muscle, bone is living tissue that responds to exercise by getting stronger. However, not all exercise is equal when it comes to building bone. Some will have zero impact on your bones and others can make a dramatic difference.
Effective exercises act against Gravity
Firstly, let’s clear up exercises that don’t help build bone density. Exercises that are not weight bearing will have no discernable impact on bone. Examples include swimming and cycling. For exercise to be effective it needs to act against gravity, like the body does during stair climbing, dancing, tennis and jogging. Walking is weight bearing, and is often spruiked as the first port of call for anyone with osteoporosis, however walking does NOT provide enough stimulus to significantly impact bone density. Walking and other non weight bearing activities are excellent for general health, and should be included in your daily activities, however not to the exclusion of weight bearing exercises for those wishing to combat low bone density.
Adding Impact to improve results
Moving onto exercises that do build bone density – we know that weight bearing exercises will help keep bones strong, but they have an even greater effect on bone if they also include a high impact component. Basketball and volleyball players have strong bones due to the impact on the skeleton these sports produce. It is not going to be safe to recommend such sports to those at risk of osteoporosis, especially if you’ve never played them before, so instead it is recommended to include as much impact as your condition allows. Lower impact weight bearing activities include marching, stair climbing and stomping. Moderate impact activities include hopping, skipping, heel drops and highland dancing.
Topping off with some Resistance
As well as weight bearing exercise with impact, those looking to build bone should also include resistance training. Resistance training is exercise to strengthen muscles, and can be performed using weights, resistance bands or your bodyweight. As your muscles get stronger and pull on your bones during resistance training, the bones will respond by becoming stronger themselves. The key is to ensure the weights become progressively heavier, so that the muscles and bones continue to become stronger and stronger. Evidence suggests high intensity weight training (ie heavy weights and lower repetitions) has a much greater effect on bone density than light loads.
Don't forget Balance
For anyone with osteoporosis or at risk of osteoporosis, it is vital to include balance training in your routine. Balance training won’t improve bone density, but it will help reduce falls and resulting fractures.
So the best exercises for bone density are heavy weight training and high impact weight bearing activity. However, this isn’t necessarily a safe program for someone with osteoporosis, or a high falls risk, vertebral fractures or knee osteoarthritis (among other medical conditions), which is why exercise under the supervision of an exercise physiologist is crucial for anyone with low bone density. They will show you how to exercise appropriately for your condition and how to gradually progress simple resistance training and weight bearing exercises to have the maximum impact on your bones, while taking into account your limitations.