Osteoporosis Exercises: Strength Training for Building Bone Density

Anyone can learn these osteoporosis exercises, and you don’t need a personal trainer.

weight training osteoporosis

Walking or cycling alone are not enough to build bone mass.

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Have you been told you need to exercise for your bone health, but are confused about what are the best osteoporosis exercises? Are you wondering if walking is enough to build your bone density? Maybe you’ve heard that you need to do weight-bearing osteoporosis exercises, but you’re not sure what that means. The following article details two studies about osteoporosis exercises, the first shows that walking or cycling alone are not enough to build bone mass, the second outlines the best proven osteoporosis exercises.

You Might Lose a Little Weight With Walking or Bicycling, But You Won’t Build Bone

In order to better understand how aerobic exercise effects bone mineral density, a team of researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine and the University of Washington conducted a year-long study on the effect of aerobic exercise on bone mineral density.

The randomized controlled study involved 173 postmenopausal women from the ages of 50 to 75 who were sedentary and either overweight or obese. None of the women had osteopenia or osteoporosis and none were taking hormone replacement therapy. Half of the women were assigned to the exercise group and the other half to a control group.

The exercise prescription consisted of 45 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, either walking or bicycling, while maintaining an average heart rate of 60-75 percent of maximal heart rate. Those in the exercise group gradually worked up to this level by week 8 and maintained this routine five days a week for 12 months.

One some days the women exercised at home while on other days they were supervised in a gym where they used either a treadmill or stationary bike. The women in the control group attended one 45-minute stretching session per week.

After one year, none of the women experienced any improvements (or worsening) in bone mineral density. Their total body bone mineral density was not substantially affected by the aerobic exercise and remained about the same as when they started.

On average, the exercisers lost about three pounds of fat but did not gain any muscle mass, while those in the control group gained a slight amount of weight.

While walking itself is not a sufficient weight-bearing activity, weighted walking is. “To do this, grab two dumbbells, kettlebells, or bags of cans from the kitchen, and hold them to your side,” says Marvin Nixon, Health and Wellness Coach at Nixon Health Coaching.

The Best Osteoporosis Exercises Are Proven to Build Bone Density

So if aerobic exercise on its own doesn’t work for building bone strength, what does? There are three main types of exercise that stimulate bone growth. Dan DeFigio, Director at Basics and Beyond, says, “Bone growth is stimulated when: 1) the skeleton gets stressed with an external load, ideally from multiple directions; 2) whole-body vibration, and 3) impact training.”

We now have long-term follow-up data from the Bone Estrogen Strength Training (BEST) study conducted between 1995 and 2001 by University of Arizona researchers.

The most effective osteoporosis exercises for building bone density are a combination of a small amount of weight-bearing aerobic exercises combined with six progressive resistance exercises using free weights and weight resistance machines.

Part of the BEST study was a randomized controlled trial in 167 sedentary postmenopausal women, ages 40 to 65, which found that the osteoporosis exercises described below can build bone density and stave off osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis Exercises—The Best Proven Bone Density Training Program

1. 3- to 5-minute cardiovascular warm-up

2. 20 minutes of strength-training exercises; 2 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions of each core exercise:

  • Back extension
  • Lat pull down
  • Leg press
  • One-arm military press
  • Seated row
  • Wall or Smith squats

3. 15 minutes of “cardio-weight-bearing activity” such as weighted walking, stair climbing, or jogging

4. 5 minutes of abdominal exercises

5. 5 minutes of balance and stretching

Initially, 89 subjects were assigned to the exercise group and participated in a 1-year trainer-supervised program of the osteoporosis exercises listed above. They exercised 2 to 3 times per week and progressively increased the weight lifted. They continued to do the osteoporosis exercises on their own during years 2-4.

They also took 800 mg of calcium as calcium citrate per day. The six weight lifting osteoporosis exercises were discovered to be a crucial part of the program. Over the 4 years, those who stuck with it and lifted the most weight on average had the greatest bone mineral density increases, which were as high as 2.6 percent in the lumbar spine!

“A diet high in calcium-rich foods and protein are recommended to ensure that you provide your body with the nutrients required to grow lean, strong muscle tissue,” says Brett Durney, Co-Founder and Personal Trainer at Fitness Lab.

Anyone can learn these exercises, and you don’t need a personal trainer. Abundant videos and books demonstrating these basic weight lifting techniques and osteoporosis exercises are available.

It’s also important to incorporate other natural treatments for osteopenia and osteoporosis besides exercise and calcium.

Originally published in 2013, this post has been updated by the editors of University Health News.

[1] Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Jul;38(7):1236-44.

[2] Calcium, heavy lifting stave off osteoporosis.

[3] Osteoporos Int. 2003 Aug;14(8):637-43.


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Kathleen Jade, ND

Dr. Kathleen Jade is a naturopathic physician and served for many years as the Medical Director and Editor-In-Chief of Natural Health Advisory Institute. She has been licensed as a primary … Read More

View all posts by Kathleen Jade, ND

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