Weight lifting and other resistance-based exercises go much deeper than the muscles they work.
High-impact workouts are often sworn off later in life because of the jarring effect they have on ailing or injury-prone joints. But, the force involved in these workouts isn’t all bad, especially when it comes to building and maintaining bone strength.
Your bones, which are a living tissue, adapt to the abrupt stress of exercises that involve impact like running and jumping by adding mass to the affected area.
Unfortunately, lower impact, joint-friendly workouts like water aerobics and cycling don’t apply that same beneficial force to the targeted bone structure — no matter how hard we work.
Thankfully, there’s a less jarring alternative. Dr. Olivier Abtan, a chiropractor with The Collective Healthcare Group in Toronto recommends strength training for those looking for a safer way to apply the necessary force needed to build and maintain their bone density.
Strength training involves the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction and includes exercises performed with weights, resistance bands and your own body weight.
“I think it’s something that everybody should be looking into incorporating. It doesn’t mean we’re saying not to get into the pool,” Abtan says. “There are advantages to aquatic exercises and low-impact exercises in terms of tolerability. But you’re not going to be increasing bone density very well if you just do pool exercises.”
Similar to high-impact workouts, loading specific bones with more weight or force than they’re used to promotes the formation of new bone.
As we age, addressing bone mass becomes paramount.
When we’re young, bone resorption, which is the loss of bone tissue over time, is balanced or exceeded by the production of new bone tissue. After age 40, however, less bone is replaced. Woman experience an increase of bone loss during menopause to between two and three per cent per year, which persists for about five years after menopause.
When nothing is done to counteract this loss, our bones can become weak and we can increase our risk of debilitating, and even fatal fractures.
Osteoporosis, a disease characterized by the rapid loss of bone mass, affects an estimated 2 million Canadians and is responsible for over 80 per cent of all fractures in people aged 50 and older.
Fortunately, the mechanics of building bone with strength training isn’t overly complicated. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise showed that increases in the strength of specific muscles coincided with increases in density of the attached bone.
In other words, you can target specific bones to strengthen by consistently challenging the adjacent muscles.
Abtan suggests working on the wrists, spine and hips, which are the most common fracture sites in older adults.
The most dangerous fractures, however, are those of the spine and hip bones, which, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, increases the odds of an early death in people aged 50 and over.
Research has shown that the weighted squat is one of the best ways to strengthen the spine and hip bones. In a study published by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, patients with osteopenia and osteoporosis (conditions that are characterized by weakened bones) saw substantial increases in spine and hip bone mineral content (an indicator of bone growth) after only 12 weeks of training with a squat machine.
But resistance training isn’t only about strengthening bones to withstand a fall. It’s also a great way to prevent falls from happening entirely.
Squats and other lower body workouts that strengthen the legs have been shown to improve balance, which is key in preventing falls.
The preventative benefits of resistance training extends to improvements in cognition as well. Another study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that participants over 60 who participated in a six-week full body resistance training program showed improvements in spacial awareness as well as visual and physical reaction time — all three of which are crucial to fall prevention.
“The problem with having weak bones is not just having weak bones,” Dr. Abtan explains. “It’s having weak bones and then falling.”
With its benefits to bone strength, balance and cognition, resistance training can help you address both ends of that equation.
Visit here for Osteoporosis Canada’s guidelines on strength training and other exercises that promote healthy bones and prevent fractures.