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Exercise for healthy bones and joints

Friday 2nd May

Weight-bearing exercise is a great way to strengthen your bones. Think jogging, aerobics, tennis and dancing, or any kind of physical activity where you're supporting your own body weight.

Bones are at their strongest from our mid 20s to 30s and, as we get older, bone density will gradually start to decline. For women this is most noticeable immediately after the menopause, and it can lead to osteoporosis and an associated risk of fractures. To help you look after your bones, physiotherapist Rachel Lewis, a specialist advisor to the National Osteoporosis Society shares her exercise tips.

Q: How does weight-bearing exercise promote healthy bones?
A: You need gravity and then extra weight - or weight-bearing - to improve the density of the bone. If you work in a non-gravitational atmosphere (in space) it actually leaches all the strength from your bones. You need exercise to be weight bearing: you need it to be carrying at least your own body weight and possibly a bit more. The “bit more” could be weights, therabands (resistance bands, resembling big elastic bands), or aqua aerobics with extra resistance. You've basically got to be doing something more than just pushing through the air.

Q: What sort of weight-bearing exercises should people try?
A: Pilates is a good form of exercise, as it's weight-bearing and you're in a good posture.

As well as Pilates, there's tai'chi and yoga.

Be aware, however, that some yoga poses induce flexion of the spine, so you're bending. If you are prone to osteoporosis, and you don't know it, then there are actually positions that can induce fracture, so I wouldn't advocate yoga as much as other forms of exercise.

Q: Can brisk walking have a positive effect?
A: Walking isn't enough to increase your bone density. Walking only increases the load on your bones by about two to three times your bodyweight. Jogging is somewhere between four and six, and jumping anything between five and ten times your bodyweight.

Q: What about popular sports, like tennis and football?
A: Games like tennis and badminton are great, as with racquet sports people have a third as much bone density in their serving forearm as in their non-serving forearm.

There's also research in the 40's to 50's age group, among perimenopausal Swedish women (i.e. going through the changes of the menopause), who were shown to improved their bone density by doing football training for a year.

Q: Tell us more about the benefits of aqua aerobics.
A: Aqua aerobics is really good for your heart and lungs, as it's much more cardiovascularly demanding to exercise in water than on land. But unless you've got extra resistance we don't think it does a huge amount for bone. However, if you're recovering from injury or if you're in pain, then aqua aerobics is a fantastic way to exercise.

To add resistance, there's a whole host of water exercise equipment you could use: floats or water dumb-bells, resistance mittens or table-tennis bats. Most aqua aerobics classes will probably have woggles that you can do a lot with. You need to push down on something buoyant to give you the resistance.

Q: How much exercise do we need?
A: I tend to follow the government guidelines, so exercising five times a week, with two days' rest. You need that, as if you over-exercise you'll get tired and the first thing to take the strain is the bone. That's when you risk getting a stress fracture.

Q: Does diet also make a difference?
A: If you're thinking of bone strength, you want to ensure a good dietary intake of calcium and vitamin D. Especially in over-exercisers, as above, who might be pushing themselves over the limit.

Further information

Visit the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) website for more about maintaining strong, healthy bones, and for information about the risk factors and treatments for osteoporosis. The NOS operates an osteoporosis helpline on 0845 450 0230.

Members of benenden health also have access to the 24-hour GP helpline if they would like to speak to a doctor about their health concerns.

Our thanks go to the NOS for putting us in touch with their spokesperson, Rachel Lewis.

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