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Taking the Offensive Against Osteoporosis

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “The best defense is a good offense.” This phrase has applications in countless areas, from board games to real world military scenarios. In basketball, if your team is continually in possession of the ball, working to score, the other team will be forced to spend most of their time defending, and thus, your basket is protected. In football, a team’s talent is partially judged by how quickly their defense takes possession of the ball and by how long their offense can hold onto it. In soccer, kung fu, chess, and many others, the principle is still the same – keep your opponent guessing by taking initiative and attacking first.

Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones become brittle and break easily (in the most severe of cases, bones become so frail that something as simple as a sneeze can cause serious fractures). According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis; 80% of them are women. These individuals are at risk for broken bones, specifically in the wrist, hip, and spine. Spinal and hip fractures are especially dangerous as they can lead to deformity, loss of mobility and independence, and in rare cases, even death.

Many people understandably react to this diagnosis with fear. They feel that if they never do anything at all, they can never break a bone. They mistakenly believe they are handicapped. Now I’m not here to make light of this disease. Osteoporosis is a serious condition that must be monitored by a medical professional. But as in other areas, the best way to treat osteoporosis is to take the offensive: get plenty of calcium and vitamin D, receive regular bone mineral density scans, follow your doctor’s instructions, and exercise regularly to build stronger bones. Doing so can not only work to reverse osteoporosis if you already have it, but it can help to prevent it from developing in the first place!

Exercising to prevent or reverse osteoporosis requires three components: weight-bearing cardiovascular activities, strength training, and flexibility and balance exercises. Always get your doctor’s approval before beginning a new exercise program, especially if you already have osteoporosis as you will need to take extra safety precautions.

Weight-bearing cardio exercise is any activity that increases your heart rate in which your weight is supported by your legs. Bones respond to weight in a similar way that muscles do – they become stronger. Choose either low-impact activities (walking, using an elliptical machine, dancing, and gardening, just for starters) or high impact activities (jogging, tennis, jumping rope, etc.). Low-impact activities are best for those who already have osteoporosis, suffer from other physical ailments (such as arthritis), or are just beginning their fitness program. And although swimming and biking are good for overall fitness, they don’t help prevent osteoporosis because they don’t require weight-bearing.

Because bones become stronger in response to weight, strength training is essential in reversing/preventing osteoporosis. When doing strengthening exercises, think of your body in “zones” – upper body, core (back and abs), and lower body. Each zone needs a rest day in between strengthening sessions (for example, Day 1: exercise upper body and core, Day 2: lower body, Day 3: upper body and core, etc.) Slow, steady movements are the goal, in sets of 10-15 with rests in between.

Good balance and flexibility are essential in preventing the falls that are so dangerous for those with osteoporosis. Your physical therapist can help design a fitness program with stretching and balance exercises that are appropriate for your needs and abilities.

Osteoporosis doesn’t have to be a sentence to inactivity. Take the offensive and fight back against this disease! Your bones will thank you.

For more information on exercising with osteoporosis, call 463-0022 today!