Exercise can improve strength, balance, endurance, posture and flexibility, but did you know that the right kind of exercise can also help build bone in people who have osteopenia?
Osteopenia refers to bone that has begun to lose density and weaken. Osteopenia frequently leads to osteoporosis, an irreversible “thinning” of the bone or loss of bone density. Osteoporosis affects both men and women, with white and Asian women – especially those who are past menopause – at highest risk.
In April 2013, the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) released new figures estimating that approximately 9 million adults in the U.S. have osteoporosis and more than 48 million have low bone mass placing them at increased risk for osteoporosis and broken bones. Direct costs associated with osteoporosis are expected to reach $25.3 billion by 2025.
The best way to diagnose osteopenia or osteoporosis is a DXA scan – a low dose x-ray which compares the density of a person’s bone to that of a large group of healthy 30-year-old adults whose bone is at peak strength.
Treatments for osteopenia and osteoporosis include taking vitamin D and calcium, stopping smoking, limiting how much alcohol you drink, watching how much sodium you eat, and exercise.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends regular muscle-strengthening and balance exercises for people with both osteopenia and osteoporosis. For people with osteopenia, many studies have shown that weight bearing exercises (walking, hiking, jogging, stair climbing) can also help build bone or at least slow down bone loss compared to people who don’t do this type of exercise. And posture exercises can help us avoid that rounded spine or “Dowager’s hump.”
The CDC warns people with low bone mass to be careful before starting an exercise program because poor exercise technique can actually be harmful, and there are some exercises and positions that people with low bone density should avoid. The CDC recommends seeing a physical therapist to learn safe exercises before starting a program.
Talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner about your bone health. If they give you the go ahead, consult an exercise professional who has experience with osteopenia and osteoporosis. Exercise is good for us in so many ways. Benefits include helping lower blood pressure and our risk for certain cancers, controlling weight, taking care of our diabetes, and reducing stress. Now, we can add building bone and maintaining posture and function for people with osteopenia and osteoporosis to that list of benefits.
For more information on osteoporosis and osteopenia, visit the website of the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Sheila Reid, PT MS, is a clinical research educator in the Rehabilitation Therapies department at the University of Vermont Medical Center.