If you’re a woman over 50, you may be tempted to forgo strength training and stay physically active in other ways, like walking or cycling. However, these exercises aren’t high impact enough or require enough force generation to stimulate new bone growth and lower the risk of osteoporosis. If you’re concerned about preserving bone health, it’s worth the effort to work your muscles against resistance.
Aging and inactivity are two leading contributors to bone loss. When you lose bone mass, your bones become weaker and more fragile. This happens because you break down bone faster than you create it. As you age, cells that produce new bone, called osteoblasts, become less active than cells called osteoclasts that break bone down. The result is a net loss of bone, enhanced by hormonal changes that occur in women after menopause.
Most people strength train to build muscle strength and size, but strength training also places stress on your bone and acts as a stimulus for the laydown of new bone. Adults who aren’t physically active lose between 3 and 8% of their muscle mass each decade of life, but bone loss also occurs. Bone mass peaks at around age 30, and the average person loses 3 to 5% of their bone mass each decade after. It adds up over time to weak and fragile bones that break easily.
Strength Training Offsets Bone Loss
The good news? Strength training helps preserve bone mass and even increase bone mineral density (BMD) in older women and men. At one time, experts believed bone density was “set” by age 30, meaning you accumulate the maximal amount of bone you have over a lifetime during adolescence and early adulthood. After that, you can lose, but not gain bone mass. The idea was to accumulate as much bone as possible during the adolescent and teen years to build up bone reserve. However, more recent research suggests things aren’t so set in stone. You can build bone density later in life through high-impact exercise and strength training.
How much bone can you develop later in life? Strength training reduces further bone loss, but some studies show you can boost bone density between 1 and 3% as an adult. You do this by stimulating bone growth through high-impact exercise and/or strength training. That’s encouraging for women at high risk of osteoporosis. Risk factors for osteoporosis include:
- Being female
- Over the age of 50
- Caucasian or European heritage
- A family history of osteoporosis
- Being small in stature or thin (BMI under 25)
- Drinking excess alcohol (3 or more drinks per day)
- Having thyroid disease, diabetes, or kidney disease
- Having a history of falls and fractures
- Have a history of low bone density or osteopenia
- Taking certain medications
- Lack of physical activity
The more risk factors you have, the more important it is to lead a lifestyle that includes exercise and nutritional support for healthy bones, including adequate calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. Studies also show that vitamin K2 plays an underappreciated role in preventing osteoporosis. It helps direct the calcium you consume to the bone tissue.
Strength training is also part of the equation. Strength training increases bone density by building new bone tissue, breaking down old bone, and replacing it with new, healthy tissue. It’s the best strategy for keeping bones healthy for women after 50, since strength training is easier on the joints than high-impact exercise, like running and jumping.
What Type of Strength Training is Best?
The best exercises for boosting bone density are those that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously, like deadlifts, squats, and push-ups. A balanced strength training routine works the upper and lower body muscles, and the muscles in the front and back of the body equally. A routine for bone health should include both “pushing” and “pulling” strength movements.
Too often, people work the “mirror” muscles, those they can see in the mirror, more than the opposing muscles in the back. Keep your training balanced. To be effective for building bone mass, use a resistance that you can only complete 6 to 8 repetitions before your muscles are fatigued. You should have trouble completing another repetition after the 6th to 8th rep. If you still have some in you, increase the weight. Although studies are inconsistent, most show that lifting heavier weights and lower reps is more effective for building bone than lighter weights and higher reps.
How often should you train? The National Osteoporosis Foundation advises strength training 30 to 40 minutes 2 or more times per week. Consistency is important for building bone and muscle. So, make strength training part of your routine.
The Bottom Line
Research suggests strength training can improve bone density by as much as 3% in adults. Plus, it works to prevent further bone loss. Talk to your physician before starting a strength-training routine if you already have osteoporosis. Start with lighter weights and work your way up to heavier ones, and make sure you’re using proper form before going heavy. Be consistent with your training too and make it part of an overall healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition, sleep, and stress management. Your bones need to be overloaded and supplied with ample nutrition to stimulate bone growth.
- “Osteoporosis Exercises: Strength Training for Building ….” 06 Apr. 2020, universityhealthnews.com/daily/bones-joints/osteoporosis-exercises-a-proven-exercise-program-involving-strength-training-for-building-bone-density/.
- “Osteoporosis Exercise for Strong Bones – National ….” nof.org/patients/treatment/exercisesafe-movement/osteoporosis-exercise-for-strong-bones/.
- “Strength training increases regional bone mineral density ….” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8335581/.
- “Resistance Training and Bone Mass.” https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/bonemass.html.
- “Exercise for Your Bone Health | NIH Osteoporosis and ….” https://www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/bone-health/exercise/exercise-your-bone-health.
- “Strength Training and Bone Density in Female College ….” https://www.northeastern.edu/rise/presentations/strength-training-and-bone-density-in-female-college-students/.
- Office of the Surgeon General (US). Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville (MD): Office of the Surgeon General (US); 2004. 2, The Basics of Bone in Health and Disease. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK45504/