For aging populations, exercise is a critical component of strengthening bones to preventing fractures.
If you move a lot, lift heavy things, walk, jog, cycle, jump, dance, do Pilates, hike or ski, then your muscles and connective tissues will be stronger and more functional. Youll be more flexible, coordinated and agile. And exercise also increases bone density and, more importantly, bone strength.
I did some digging, and discovered that when it comes to the effect of exercise on the bone health of aging populations, Wendy Kohrt is the expert.
I started off by asking her if resistance training actually increases bone density.
It can happen, said Kohrt, who is a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Colorado. She explained that we cant say with absolute certainty it happens in humans, but the indications are that it does.
What I found most enlightening about my conversation with Kohrt, who has written numerous scientific studies on the subject, is its not just weightlifting that can reap bone benefits.
Forces can be introduced to the skeleton in two ways, she said. Ground reaction force is the effect of your body contacting the ground, which includes walking, running and jumping. Resistance training (weightlifting), by comparison, involves joint reaction force which is muscle pulling on bone, Kohrt explained.
She said most of the research focused on the effect of resistance training on bone formation, But studies comparing resistance training with endurance exercise show no evidence one is better than the other. A vigorous endurance program running, jogging, stairs, plyometrics can have similar increases in bone density.
And in some cases, endurance can be better for older populations, at least to start, because the most beneficial resistance training exercises, such as squats, can be a challenge.
So what are the benefits of exercise on new bone development?
We generated increases in the neighborhood of 2 percent, Kohrt said. That sounds pathetic. But wait!
Kohrt explained exercise elicits similar bone growth improvements as do medications, but the true difference lies not in the increase in bone density, but in bone strength. With drugs, its a 1 to 1 ratio. If you increase density 2 percent, you increase strength 2 percent. With exercise, and this is being conservative, its a tenfold difference. Kohrt explained a 2 percent increase in bone mass can translate into a 20 percent increase in bone strength, and perhaps as much as 40 percent.
Its important to note these are animal studies, because they needed to break the bones to find out how strong they are.
When you exercise, the stresses only occur in the regions of the skeleton that experience that stress, Kohrt explained. Drugs arent targeted, but if there are specifically weak areas of your skeleton, you can give them extra attention via focused training. Thats good.
Kohrt spoke of epidemiological studies on actual people. Almost all studies found the most physically active people had a 40 percent less risk of hip fracture than the least active ones. So even doing dangerous things on slippery surfaces, theyre still at less risk of needing that bionic hip than those who sit around.
I recommend they engage in a variety of activities, Kohrt said, to keep the entire system strong.
James Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.