How does exercise help build healthy bones?

Written by: Dr Taher Mahmud
Edited by: Top Doctors®

We all know how important exercise is for our body, our weight, and our health in general. Exercise can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart disease, or heart attacks, but did you know that exercise can also reduce your risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures? Leading consultant rheumatologist Dr Taher Mahmud, co-founder of the London Osteoporosis Clinic, tells us how. 

Why is your bone mass important?

You might not think it, but your bones are living tissue, and it’s vital to keep that tissue healthy and strong. Your bones are constantly renewing, as old bone breaks down, and new tissue grows to form bone mass. While you are young, your bones can grow more quickly than they break down. We usually reach our peak bone mass (which refers to the maximum strength and density of bone) in our mid-30s, so building up a decent store of bone is vital to improving bone health, and preventing conditions such as osteoporosis, and fractures.

How can we improve bone mass?

One way to achieve greater bone mass is through exercise. Those who exercise, particularly when young but also in later life, in general find their bone mass is higher than in those who do not. Exercise certainly helps us to stay healthy and maintain our weight, but it is also essential for building that bone mass.

Even after you reach your peak bone mass, exercise can give you better coordination and balance, and improve your muscle strength, which in turn helps to prevent falls. Falls can cause fractures, which can be incredibly serious in those who already have osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become more fragile.

What kind of exercise is recommended to improve bone mass?

Exercise such as going for a walk, or doing gentle weights can help you to improve your muscle strength, and is great for your circulation and heart, but it isn’t the best kind of exercise for your bones. So what can you do to build those bones and work towards preventing osteoporosis?

The best kind of exercise you can do for your bones is weight-bearing exercise. When you exercise, great force is exerted on your bones and muscles. When a triple jumper flies through the air, and hits the ground, the force on their heel when they land is about 15 times their body weight. Force bends and twists the bones, and they react by growing in size in order to minimise the risk of breaking. Athletes like jumpers and runners can have three times more shin bone than those who do no exercise. That’s a lot to have in the bank!

What kind of exercise should I do to reduce fracture risk?

Playing football, basketball, tennis, or hockey could be an option for those who like team sports, or to be actively involved in games. If you’re an outdoorsy type, walking, jogging, running, and hiking are all great examples of weight-bearing activity. Lots of these exercises can be done at the gym too, along with dancing, lifting weights, or skipping. The important thing is to exercise, or at least be active, for about 30 minutes every day.

Exercise can be beneficial for your bones at any age, so it’s not too late to start, or improve on what you’re already doing. The force which acts on our bones daily can have great influence on their shape, size, and strength. Bones which have been exercised can maintain their size for years, even after stopping exercise. Learn which exercises are safe for you, and do what you can to minimise your risk of fractures in later life.

Dr Taher Mahmud

By Dr Taher Mahmud

Dr Taher Mahmud is an expert consultant rheumatologist and osteoporosis lead with over 18 years' experience, and Co-founder and Director of the London Osteoporosis Clinic. It is the first clinic in the UK entirely dedicated to early and post-fracture screening, diagnosis and treatment to prevent fractures, and the reversal of osteoporosis. Dr Mahmud's interests include osteoporosis, inflammatory arthritis, and soft tissue inflammation. With initial training in King's College, he went on to train in rheumatology at the Lupus Unit, St Thomas' Hospital, and the Rheumatology Unit at Guy's Hospital, London. Dr Mahmud has a special interest in raising awareness of the prevention of osteoporosis fractures, and bone health. He has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed publications and has authored his own book on the subject of patient care and feedback. 

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