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What Counts as Weight-Bearing Exercise to Strengthen Your Bones?

If you’re walking, cycling or swimming regularly, good for you! You’re taking steps to keep your heart and joints healthy and to care for your mental health. But to keep your bones strong, you might want to mix in some weight-bearing exercise.

“For bone health, you need impact,” said Anna Waterbrook, MD, a sports medicine physician at Banner – University Medicine Orthopedics Clinic in Tucson, AZ. “Low-impact exercises such as walking are good for your cardiovascular and joint health, but they likely don’t stress your bones enough to promote bone health in order to prevent osteoporosis and fractures.”

Here are some workouts that can build your bones

Adding some of these activities to your exercise routine can help keep your bones strong:

  • Running
  • Racquet sports, like tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Aerobics classes
  • Jumping rope
  • Gymnastics
  • Jumping/plyometrics
  • Push-ups
  • Mountain biking on rugged terrain
  • High-intensity resistance training

“You want to create a rapid impact that’s at least double your body weight,” Dr. Waterbrook said. “And you should make your workout progressively harder as your bones and muscles adapt.”

If you do a lot of lower-body weight-bearing exercise, like running, it’s good to add in some weight-bearing exercise for your arms.

For older adults, some high-impact exercises may be too challenging or unsafe. Older adults might want to try racquet sports or aerobics classes, where they can start with low-impact exercise and gradually try to work in a bit of bone-building impact. They could also add short bursts of jogging to their walks. Dancing, hiking, stair climbing, body weight and resistance training are other good options for seniors.

Lifting weights is also beneficial for your bones

Along with impact activities, the force you apply to your bones during resistance training can also help keep them strong. Dr. Waterbrook recommends lifting weights twice a week and targeting your large muscle groups with two to three sets. “Weights should be heavy enough to fatigue your muscles or push them to the point where you can do no more after eight reps,” she said.

She said women sometimes worry about bulking up from lifting weights, but that rarely happens—hormonal differences between women and men make it much more difficult for women to gain muscle.

And while it’s great to start lifting weights early, it’s never too late. One study, called Lifting Intervention for Training Muscle and Osteoporosis Rehabilitation (LIFTMOR), found that exercises like deadlifts, squats and overhead presses can improve bone density in both postmenopausal women and middle-aged and older men with low bone mass.

Don’t forget about balance when you’re focusing on your bones

“Balance training, while not technically weight-bearing exercise, is also important for bone health,” Dr. Waterbrook said. And good balance can also help you avoid the falls that could injure your bones. She recommends walking heel-to-toe, balancing on one foot without shoes or socks and performing single-leg core exercises.

Dr. Waterbrook said if you’re new to weight-bearing exercise, don’t overdo it. “A little discomfort can be okay, but it is important not to injure yourself. And if you have any underlying health conditions or are new to exercise or weight-bearing activities, you may want to consult with a health care professional to ensure that you are starting and progressing in a safe and healthy way.”

The bottom line

Adding impact activities, weightlifting and balance training to your workout routine can help keep your bones strong and healthy as you get older. If you would like to talk to an expert about the best ways to improve your bone health, Banner can help.

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