Bone Up

Good Fitness Goes More Than Skin Deep And Helps Prevent Osteoporosis

You may be in it for the abs. Or to relieve stress. Or because there’s an outfit you’re planning to look great in. Whatever your motivations are for working out, you know that exercise is good for your body.

But while the results you can see in the mirror are rewarding, the benefits quietly being reaped by your bones could be some of the best incentives you’ll find for getting off the sofa and into the gym.

Researchers tell us that bone, just like muscle, is living tissue which becomes stronger through regular exercise. Bone mass tends to peak in our 30s—after that, bones begin to weaken, becoming less dense and more prone to breaks.

A recent report from the Surgeon General predicts that by the year 2020, “Half of all Americans over 50 will have weak bones,” putting them at higher risk for fractures. The same report states that 10 million people in that demographic currently have osteoporosis of the hip, and the resulting broken bones can have devastating consequences, particularly in the elderly.

With women making up 80 percent of those with osteoporosis, it seems clear that we should be paying attention to the Surgeon General’s recommendation to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day.

As Caroline Rivera, M.A., M.S., PhD, interim dean and professor of biology at Tidewater Community College, explains, “As we build muscle strength through exercise, the muscle pulls on the bone which in turn stimulates the bone-making cells to make more bone.” The stress placed on bones during a workout actually triggers the addition of new cells, a process vital for maintaining bone density.

Rivera is also a certified yoga instructor at Studio Bamboo in Virginia Beach, and she’s found that practicing yoga can be an effective way to strengthen and protect bones. The best exercises for maintaining bone health are weight-bearing—weight-training, jogging, walking and even dancing—and a yoga class can fit that bill.

“A typical sequence of sun salutations, a warrior series and shoulder stand will work together to build muscle and bone strength,” she says, adding that a yoga practice can be modified to accommodate all fitness levels and ages. Rivera’s goal is to ensure that her students receive as many of the blissful and healthy benefits possible, regardless of where they are. “It’s never too late for yoga.”

In Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood, Meyer Fitness offers a variety of conditioning options which focus on safely building strength. According to owner Bill Meyer, “Strong is the New Skinny,” a boot camp program for women, helps his clients to shed fat while increasing strength and confidence, “No matter if you’re a newcomer or an exercise veteran.”

In his experience, Meyer has found that strength training with free weights becomes increasingly important with age. “Moving with weights in patterns that mimic what we do in everyday life,” he says, will help to ensure that bodies and bones stay strong and able to meet the demands of a typical day.

“If you live in a house with lots of stairs to climb and descend each day, you may choose to perform weighted step-ups on a small box in your workout,” to keep your body conditioned and safe.

Of course, many factors can contribute to bone disease, including heredity, fluctuating hormone levels and certain medical conditions and medications.

Avoiding smoking and opting for a healthy diet that includes foods rich in calcium and Vitamin D will improve your odds of stopping bones loss. And medication is sometimes necessary to treat osteoporosis. But staying physically active is one of the most important steps that you can take to ensure the health of your bones.

For Rivera, fitness is a lifelong commitment with benefits—both external and internal—that are well worth the effort. “Join a walking group, take a yoga class with a friend, pick activities that you enjoy,” she says. “The biggest hurdle to becoming active is taking the first step.”

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