As more of us live beyond our 80’s, our bones become an increasingly important element of healthy ageing. The statistics (found here) are just as dire as the obesity epidemic. The good news is that although we all stop accumulating bone mass at age 30, there are scientifically proven methods of maintaining a strong and functional skeleton for as long as you have breath in your lungs.
The average adult human skeleton is made up of 206 bones. The talus is the only bone in the body with no muscular attachments. This means that the other 204 bones you possess are under varying amounts of muscular force at any given time. Muscular force is the pulling, twisting or bending force that an attached muscle inflicts on the bone when it contracts. The other type of force is Ground Reaction Force (GRF). GRF is the force originating from the ground that is transferred upwards throughout our skeletal structure. There are more forces under these two classifications, i.e. torsional, shearing, axial compressing, etc. For the purpose of this concept, just know that the ground creates a force on our bones from the outside and our muscles create a force on our bones from the inside.
This is important to note because the demand (force) we impose on our bones in our daily lives is the only way we can encourage the remodeling of spongy bone to compact bone. Yes, remodeling is the true scientific term…look it up. Your bones are constantly being broken down by some cells (osteoclasts) and built up by other cells (osteoblasts). This is the body’s way of ensuring you only have as many precious minerals devoted to structural support as you need based on the current demands of your daily life. There is a finite amount of Calcium in your body. If it all was deposited in to your bones, there would be no way of contracting a muscle to act on said bone. This is why physicians tell their patients to walk and resistance train for their bone health. Through exercise, you communicate to those osteoclasts to leave a little bone tissue to keep you upright through all 18 holes this weekend.
Bone is a living, breathing organ. We tend to think of it more like a bunch of white rocks stacked up in a particular fashion. Even when we discuss supplementation (Calcium and/or Vitamin D), we still picture little particles of Calcium floating around in our blood and being deposited on various parts of our skeleton. The truth is, we have far greater ability to create a bone building environment within ourselves than we think.
ashes, ashes, we all fall down…
Provided that you don’t overindulge on processed foods that lack minerals and/or blindly supplement your diet with random vitamins you find in the bargain bin of your local mega mart, your bones will stay dense enough to support your body in an upright position until you die. We do not need to rely on walkers, rascal scooters or robo legs to carry us across the finish line of this race called life. We seem to assume that osteoporosis and osteopenia are inevitabilities that we all must succumb to as soon as we reach a certain age. This is plain false. We didn’t go through millions of years of evolution to rise to the top of the food chain only to be limited to 70-90 years by a perpetually crumbling skeleton.
Since all but
one bone two bones (you’ve got one talus in each foot) are attached to muscles, this means that even if you are in outer space, you can maintain your bone density by regularly using your muscles and properly nourishing your body. You don’t have to spend all your money on medication that may or may not work. You may have heard of drugs like Fosamax after your doctor read your paltry numbers from your DEXA scan. Sure these drugs, called bisphosphonates, improve mineral density but what exactly does that mean? The only thing these drugs do is improve your DEXA score. They promote the retention of minerals in your bones but they do not work together with the innate wisdom of your body. They merely stop the resorption of bone by the osteoclasts. As you recall, osteoblasts work with osteoblasts to maintain healthy levels of bone density in proportion to the imposed structural demand. If you shut off the osteoclasts, you also shut down the osteoblasts. This can lead to more brittle bones and eventually to fractures.
Walk your way to bone health?
Some health professionals promote walking for bone health. The idea is that the repeated impact with each step will signal to your bones that they need to “beef up”. The truth is that the evidence is just not there to support this low-intensity mode of exercise as an effective bone preservation strategy. I suppose that for somebody considered sedentary, (Click here to see if that’s you) walking would provide some positive bone remodeling effect in the first few weeks. My only fear is that in promoting walking for bone health, we may lull those at risk of fracture in to a false sense of security; just as improving your DEXA results with bisphosphonates does.
It is crucial to incorporate a safe amount of running and resistance training in to your daily life. This is most effectively done with the coaching of an experienced fitness professional. If your bones are porous to begin with, your program must be fine tuned to weigh your needs with your abilities. If you are simply moving to prevent osteopenia, you needn’t be so structured. The beauty about moving for your bones is that you don’t need to worry about number or sets, duration or intensity like you do when training your cardiovascular system. Cardio training involves at least 3-5 systems at one time. The mode rate and volume of exercise must be carefully designed in order to evoke a desired adaptation response by the body. Bone density training however only involves one system; the musculoskeletal system. All you have to do is move your bones at any given point in the day. Of course you get out of it what you put in but any little bit adds up to a total daily demand that your body comes to expect. Demand more of your bones on a daily basis and your body will reward you with a couple hips that are less likely to fracture.
Wiggle your toes at your desk. Reach for the sky and pull on that shoulder girdle and ribcage. Every little bit helps and you get quite a stretch on your muscles at the same time.
- Another Reason to Strength Train: Prevent the Hump and Shrinkage (fitsugar.com)
- Weak Bones May Indicate Osteopenia (everydayhealth.com)
- Can my bisphosphonate medication increase my risk of fracture? (northshoreinstituteofhealing.wordpress.com)
- Bone Drugs: Risky After Five Years? (aarp.org)