If you have a tendency to relax on the couch more than you exercise, then you are in danger of really messing up your bones. Seriously, a couch potato faces numerous health issues by not exercising, but the worst is probably the deterioration of your bones.

Most activity helps your bones, even just walking around the shops is useful; you are keeping muscles and tendons in motion, and this in turn stimulates the bones to keep up their strength. But specific exercise with bones in mind is really important – and it doesn’t have to take up much time. But it does require some effort. So when the couch looms enticingly, it’s good to remember the following key points regarding healthy bones and exercise.

Why exercise is the number one factor in preserving the strength of your bones

  • Exercise helps to promote bone density and strength. Bones are living tissue that respond to the stresses placed upon them. Regular physical activity can help to stimulate bone remodelling – a key function that strengthens bones, reducing the risk of fractures and ultimately osteoporosis.
  • Exercise increases bone mineral density (BMD), which is the amount of mineral in bone tissue. The body responds to impact and weight-bearing exercise by producing new bone tissue, which can help to increase BMD. This, in turn, helps to make bones stronger and more resistant to fracture.
  • Weight-bearing exercises don’t have to involve lifting heavy weights – even an exercise as simple as walking can be classified as weight-bearing (you’re standing up and moving, aren’t you?). However jogging and weightlifting remain particularly effective at promoting bone health. These types of exercises place stress on the bones, which can help to stimulate bone growth. Resistance training exercises, which include weightlifting, help to increase muscle mass, providing additional support for the bones.
  • In addition to promoting bone growth and increasing BMD, exercise can also help to improve balance and co-ordination, reducing the risk of falls and fractures. As we age, our bones become more fragile, and falls can be a significant risk factor for fractures. By improving balance and co-ordination, exercise can help to reduce the risk of falling, thus contributing to the maintenance of bone health.
  • It’s important to note that not all exercise is beneficial for bone health. Low-impact exercises such as swimming and cycling are excellent for cardiovascular health, but they don’t place enough stress on the bones to promote bone growth. To maintain good bone health, it’s essential to incorporate weight-bearing and resistance training exercises into your routine.
  • But also key to an exercise programme is regularity. Regular exercise is essential for promoting good bone health. While weight-bearing and resistance training exercises are particularly effective at increasing bone density and strength, you must also remember that they are also strengthening your muscles and therefore improving balance and co-ordination. So getting off the couch will become a much easier job.

Effects on your bones of inactivity

  • Being sedentary poses risks for the body because it affects the body’s regulation. Inactivity becomes linked to body composition that has higher fat than lean mass, as well as higher levels of glucose and inflammation.
  • These are factors linked to heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. In addition, in adult bone, being inactive promotes the activity of cells that resorb bone (osteoclasts), which is a response to disuse.
  • Older adults lose bone mass through natural ageing every decade. Mature skeletons cannot lay down new bone as effectively as in youth, but resorption with disuse will still occur. Without physical activity as a loading stimulus, sedentary adults compound risks of thinning of ageing bones.
  • Furthermore, loss of muscle mass with age exposes bones to higher impact forces and is accelerated by a sedentary lifestyle. This means that sedentary behaviour will switch ‘on’ cells that promote bones being reabsorbed, whilst switching ‘off’ the signals to maintain bone strength.

If you love your bones – make ‘em work!

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za