How to build strong bones to last a lifetime

Technology is helping people to live longer lives, but it doesn’t guarantee the quality of those years. The key to living better often depends on the tools our bodies came with. For healthy bones that will last you a lifetime there is a low-tech solution: Exercise!

As we grow older, we become more at risk for falls that can lead to disability and even worse. Bone loss (often referred to as osteoporosis) tends to become more prevalent as we age, increasing the risk for bone fractures.

Technology can help us monitor bone loss. We can measure bone density, but the measurement tools target the bone surface, which at best is an indirect measure of bone stability. A number of drugs can increase the density of the bone surface, but it is the inner structure (core) that determines the bone’s stability. Drugs do not by themselves prevent fractures. The only way we can strengthen our bones at the core is by exercising.

You probably have often heard the saying “use it or lose it.” This holds true for our muscles, and it also applies to the bones that support our muscles. Our muscles and our bones are living tissue that adapt to the daily stresses that we do or don’t place on them. In fact, muscles and bones are so interrelated that researchers have determined that our muscles have been found to determine 80 percent of our bone stability!

Weight-bearing activities such as walking, moving and lifting all trigger growth in bone tissue. Conversely, physical inactivity leads to loss of bone tissue.

A study published in 1998 showed that women who trained for at least two hours per week had 36 percent fewer hip fractures than sedentary women. When compared to other research about the effectiveness of drugs, the results of this study demonstrated that exercise was twice as effective as drugs.

Bone loss isn’t just something that happens to older people. Studies with NASA astronauts revealed the longer-term effects of bone loss in the weightless environment of outer space.

Weight-bearing activities and resistance training are effective ways of improving muscle, bone and joint strength. Resistance training uses elastic bands, weighted pulleys, free or machine-balanced weights, or one’s own body weight.

Consult your doctor before engaging in an exercise program. Also, it is important that you seek guidance from a knowledgeable physical trainer or exercise specialist, especially if you have never done this before, if have existing physical concerns, or if you intend to exercise on your own.

It’s never too late to start resistance training. If you’re older, it’s important to follow some precautions:

  • If balance is a challenge when walking or standing, consider doing your resistance training seated in a chair or with machines providing seated exercises.
  • Make sure each repetition (the number of repetitive movements you perform) is done in a smooth, controlled, manner. Don’t hold your breath during each repetition.
  • Select a weight or resistance allowing you to perform 10–15 repetitions (“reps”).
  • Here’s how you progress: Start with 10 reps, build to 15 reps, then increase the resistance while lowering the reps to 10 and repeat this cycle. If you do not have any prior physical or medical limitations, you may want to increase the challenge and use a little heavier resistance allowing 8-12 reps.

You can determine how well you age. To add life to your years, engage in regular activity, eat wholesome foods, communicate with your doctor and take advantage of resources in your community to help you live more healthfully.