Our bones get weaker and more brittle as we age. Most of us reach our peak bone density around age 30. After that, the rate at which the body makes new bone tissue is surpassed by the rate at which bone breaks down. The result is that we begin to lose bone mineral density as we get older and increase the risk of a fracture if we fall.
But there are things that we can do to slow the aging process and boost bone health. Dietary intervention and medications can make a difference, but there are also exercises to increase bone density.
The Science Behind Bone Density Exercises
Studies have shown that bone density improves with weight-bearing exercise. Weight-bearing activities are those that require you to hold your body upright against gravity. Walking, jogging, and climbing stairs, for instance, are examples of weight-bearing exercise. Swimming is not a weight-bearing exercise because the water supports your weight.
Resistance training is also considered weight-bearing exercise. Research has shown that lifting weights can be highly effective for boosting bone health. But with countless options at the gym, how do you know which bone density exercises are best?
Two important studies identify five exercises that have helped postmenopausal women and older men achieve stronger bones. The exercises don't require expensive equipment and can be done at home (if you have some basic equipment) or at your local gym.
The LIFTMOR Trial
LIFTMOR (Lifting Intervention For Training Muscle and Osteoporosis Rehabilitation) was a program that investigated whether or not a progressive resistance training program could help women improve their bone density.
The study involved over 100 postmenopausal women with low bone mass. They were randomly assigned to take part in either a high-intensity resistance training program or a home-based, low-intensity exercise program. Both groups exercised twice a week. Bone mass was measured at the start of the study and again at the end.
For the resistance training, there were four exercises that the women completed in each workout: a deadlift, an overhead press, a back squat and jumping chin-ups. The women did 5 sets of 5 repetitions of each exercise and they lifted between 80-85% of their one rep max. (1RM). Your one rep max is the most weight you can lift in one repetition.
After eight months, researchers found that the weight training program improved bone density in the spine and in the hip area. Study authors noted that the resistance program improved both bone strength and functional performance.
The Hip Hop Study
This study investigated the effects of a simple hopping exercise on the bone mass of older men. The year-long study was smaller in scope than the LIFTMOR trial, involving just 34 men aged 65 to 80.
During the trial, the men performed a daily regimen that involved hopping (one leg to one leg) in different directions for two minutes. The men only performed the regimen on one leg so that results could be compared to the leg that had not been exercised.
At the end of the year, researchers evaluated bone scans of both legs and found that the hopping leg showed a 7% increase in bone mass at the hip. Even though this study was smaller in scope, other studies involving jumping routines in women showed bone mineral density improvements as well.
5 Exercises to Increase Bone Density
These two studies suggest five different exercises that you can do to increase bone density. Keep in mind that if you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, or any other medical condition, you should check with your healthcare provider before starting this or any workout program.
You'll need dumbbells or a barbell and weight plates to perform most of the movements. You'll also need a chin up bar for one exercise. Begin your workout with a five-minute full body warm-up (such as walking on a treadmill or jogging in place) to increase circulation and prepare your muscle for more vigorous exercise.
To perform a back squat, you'll start standing with feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart. If you're using dumbbells, place one weight in each hand and position them at shoulder height with elbows bent. If you're using a barbell, the bar is behind your head, resting on the meaty part of your upper back.
- Bending at the knees and hips simultaneously, drop the hips back and down as if you are about to sit on a chair behind you.
- Keep the chest open and the back strong as you continue to drop the hips.
- Lower the hips as far as you can without the heels lifting off of the floor.
- At the bottom of the movement, press the heels into the floor and push up to the starting position.
- Repeat four more times
Start standing with the feet about shoulder-width apart. Place the dumbbells or the barbell on the floor at your feet.
- Drop down into a squat position to reach down and grab your weights with an overhand grip.
- With weights in hand, lift up to a standing position. At the "top" of the move, shoulders should be aligned over the hips, hips aligned over the knees, and knees aligned over the ankles. Arms should be extended so the weights are now in front of your thighs.
- Reverse the movement and drop the body into a squat position, lowering the weights back to the floor.
- At the bottom of the move, let the weights touch the floor and repeat the exercise four more times.
You'll use dumbbells for this movement. Start standing with feet shoulder-distance apart and place one dumbbell in each hand. Lift the weights to shoulder height with the palms facing forward.
- Extend the arms up over your head keeping the palms facing forward and the back strong. Try not to arch your back.
- Continue lifting until the elbows are straight.
- Reverse the move, bringing the weights back to the shoulders and repeat four more times.
This is a strengthening exercise for the upper body that includes a jumping component as well. You'll need a secure chin-up bar to complete this move.
- With the bar positioned slightly overhead, jump up and grap the bar with an underhand grip.
- As you grab the bar, continue lifting (by bending through the elbows) as far as you can to bring the chin as close to the bar as you can.
- Once you've reached the highest possible position, release the bar and drop to the ground, landing with soft knees and ankles.
- Repeat four more times.
You can do this segment at the very end of your workout, or you can do it right after your workout. You need no special equipment, except for a timer.
- Start standing on your right leg and set the timer for two minutes.
- Using just the right leg, hop in different directions. If it helps, imagine that you are standing in the middle of a clock and hop to each hour number (e.g. hop to one, then back to center, hop to two, then back to center, etc).
- At the end of two minutes, switch to the left leg and repeat.
More Bone-Building Tips
If you are concerned about your bone density, remember to work with your healthcare team to put together a comprehensive program to improve bone health. There may be lifestyle changes that you can make (such as reducing your alcohol intake or quitting smoking) that can help you boost bone mass. And a registered dietitian can help you to identify foods that contain nutrients (such as calcium and vitamin D) to encourage bone growth. Your doctor may also be able to make recommendations regarding medications that can help you to keep your bones healthy and strong as you age.