Exercise: one powerful way to stem menopausal bone loss
by Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD
A recent study out of UCLA reveals that most of the bone loss that occurs with menopause
happens in a contained time period starting the year before menopause and including
the two years following menopause. It’s scary to think that a natural life transition
can leave us with weaker bones. Why would Mother Nature allow this to happen? Well,
she probably didn’t.
Bone loss in menopause happens primarily because of imbalanced hormones (not just
naturally dropping estrogen levels) and a lack of exercise — both of which Mother
Nature gave us the resources to overcome. In this article, we’ll focus on exercise.
The most important thing for you to remember is: the bone you’ve got is good so
let’s keep it! The old adage, use it or lose it, certainly applies to bone
health and menopause. Let’s take a closer look.
Maintaining bone in menopause
It’s common for women to lose about 10% of their bone in the 10 years around menopause,
but now we know it’s that year before menopause and the two years after that count
most. It’s hard to know for sure when you’re exactly one year away from menopause,
but you’ll begin to get clues from your body when your hormones start shifting.
These may include hot flashes and night sweats, weight gain, fuzzy thinking, fatigue,
hair loss and more. Symptoms associated with menopause sometimes begin several years
before our periods actually stop. So even if you start a new exercise routine well
before menopause, it’s not as if there are any harmful side-effects!
Here are some of the exercise modalities that I believe are great for bone health.
I explore each of these with a personal trainer in my Exercising for bone health
Pilates. I like Pilates as an
exercise because it has such a focus on alignment. We tend to look down and bend
down as we age, leading to poor posture and weakness in the small muscles around
the spine. Pilates helps strengthen these spinal muscles and the bone attached to
them. Pilates also helps us experience a feeling of elongation as well as encouraging
deep, natural breathing.
Yoga. Yoga is wonderful for bone
health on many levels. For one, it helps improve balance and coordination, both
important in preventing falls. In yoga you learn to hold poses for long periods
and shift your body weight to one side or the other. Both of these practices offer
an extra load that creates more tension from tendons pulling on bone. The more tension,
the more new bone your body will make. Yoga also has lots of stretching, which we
now understand also stimulates new bone growth. Dr. Loren Fishman has proven in
his pilot studies that just 10 minutes of yoga a day can improve bone density.
Isometric exercise. In my practice,
I’ve used resistance bands and the Osteoball to facilitate the pushing and pulling
action that accompanies isometric exercise. The reason this type of exercise is
so good for bone is that it can isolate one muscle group at a time to really work
that muscle group and the bone attached to it. Isometric exercise is particularly
helpful if you have joint tenderness or pain.
Weight- bearing training & Strength training:
Because our bones build and rebuild as needed, intense weight-bearing leads to muscle
and bone growth. The more intense or heavier loading leads to even more bone growth.
One German study indicates an 11% increase in the bone mineral density of the hip
after three years of strength training in postmenopausal women. In this study the
strength training regimen was enhanced by use of a weighted vest while exercising.
For information on the vest and osteoball we recommend, see our page on bone-building equipment.
Tai Chi: Tai Chi is an ancient
exercise that helps strengthen bone while relaxing the mind. It increases balance
and flexibility and has been shown in multiple studies to slow bone loss. Research
shows that long-term practitioners have better bone mass density as they age than
those who don’t practice Tai Chi.
Get started now:
Gentle, low-impact exercise slide show
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Leg lifts are performed lying flat on your back on a firm surface (a floor with
a mat, for example).
Leg lifts on hands and knees – keep your back parallel to the ground, and lift your
leg only as high as is comfortable.
Arm squeeze, in which you bring your elbows together in front of your face and return
to a position perpendicular to the spine (do not twist at waist or turn or bend
Sit upright in a chair, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Do this holding
weights if you can.
Lift arms straight up from your sides, above your head, while holding weights if
Raise yourself up on your toes, hold for as long as you can, then slowly lower yourself
Start in a seated position with a chair in front of you for balance, then raise
yourself to your feet while maintaining upright posture. Lift your body using the
muscles in your legs, buttocks, and lower back, not the muscles in your arms or
upper back (extend your arms to the front chair for balance, but do not press upon
the chair back).
Exploring any and all of these bone-friendly exercises will help you preserve the
healthy bone you have right now. There are also many other ways to use your bones
and muscles more, such as:
- Walking after dinner or before work in the morning
- Running up the stairs at least once a day
- Hopping on one leg, or both
- Riding your bike to work
- Going dancing or clearing out your living room for a dance party
Here’s your chance to get creative and have some fun while moving your body and
building your bones. Exercise will likely help with your other menopause symptoms
Notes on building bone during menopause
If you want to build bone during the menopause transition, it may take a more intensive
exercise plan. In the case of early post menopausal women with osteopenia, some
research indicates that the isolated effect of simply increasing habitual physical
activity does little to increase muscle strength. But this just means that women
with a diagnosis of osteopenia or at otherwise higher risk need a more deliberate
and structured exercise program instead of randomly increasing habitual physical
activity. Use of a weighted vest while exercising is often of great benefit during
this period of rapid bone loss. It might also be a time to consult a personal trainer
for help crafting a routine to fit your needs and preferences.
To learn more about menopause and your bones, see my article on
how to stop bone loss during the menopausal transition.
Exercise does not stand alone
Exercise is one of those “bone treatment” plans that doesn’t have negative side
effects. As far as I can tell, the side effects of exercise are all positive. But
exercise isn’t the only way to create better bone health through menopause.
There are 20 key nutrients that aid us in building bone and I recommend trying our
exclusive Better Bones Builder or Better Bones Balance to be sure you get enough
of all of these nutrients every day. As I mentioned earlier, hormonal balance is
also important in preventing menopausal bone loss. Eating an alkaline diet, engaging
in practices that promote regular detoxification, and managing your stress also
boost your bone health. Our Personal Program for Better Bones can help you with
all of these elements — and we make it simple and easy to understand.
Related to this article:
further reading on exercise for bone health
Last Modified: 06/04/2012
Principal Author: Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD