If you want or need to build bone density, this post is for you! I’m sharing results from a recent Flipping 50 community quiz. Miss it? Take the Quiz now! It takes about 3 minutes.
That’s the most common question and motivator!
I don’t care how old you are (my mom is 92, vanity may still trump bone density) if we’re talking about the REAL reason we all get up and exercise we want immediate gratification! If we’re not invested in looking good, we’re up for a mood or energy boost.
Fitness is a win-win. If you do what’s best for your function, the form will follow. In this case of bone density, if you do what helps prevent osteoporosis, you will also benefit from lower body fat, a better backside and toned arms.
But… if you choose options that promise to tone and tighten your bum and define your arms you may not in fact be targeting bone density.
It IS still possible to build bone density after 50. Newer supplements are showing far better results (and none of the bone-eating negative side effects of early supplements that came out in the late 90s and early 2000s). It used to be that we were only trying to slow the loss of bone. Now there’s hope and proof that increases in bone density are happening with the right exercise protocol, supplementation, and lifestyle.
Exercise to Build Bone Density
You’ve been told weight-bearing exercise is best. So you have been walking and walking, getting those 10,000 steps in.
Unfortunately, this is a start but the benefits halt after you’ve become a regular walker. Getting 10, 000 steps is not better for bone density than getting 5000. It’s the same stress repeatedly and not enough to increase benefits. It doesn’t meet what’s called a Minimal Effective Stress (MES).
This false sense of security and miscommunication about weight-bearing exercise and bone density is likely responsible for the incorrect response to the quiz question about the “best exercise to build bone density.”
The Quiz Results
49% or responders selected body weight training
Only 25% said heavy weight training
The rest were someone spilt between walking, swimming, and running.
In fact, the correct answer is heavy weight training. Using a weight you can lift 10 or fewer times has the most positive influence on bone mineral density. When you combine this type of strength training with supplementation and lifestyle habits you have the best bone supporting exercise program.
Whether you’re already lifting weights, need to start, or you hesitate because of a condition (severe osteoporosis, arthritis, or fibromyalgia for instance) don’t click away just yet. It’s not just weight training but HOW you do weight training.
Unless you’re applying adequate force to the bones they will not respond by increasing bone mineral density. So lifting heavy weights (defined above) is best.
The Best Weight Training For You Now
When you have a special conditions, the directive becomes, lift as heavily as you safely can without injury or pain following exercise.
When you’re just beginning, you start with lighter weights and more repetitions, and progress over weeks (and actually months) to heavier weights to allow your joints and ligaments to adapt.
When you’re lifting weights but potentially going through the motions, or allowing an instructor to choose which exercises you do and how many you do, you want to heighten your own awareness and define your exercise priorities.
Your goal needs to match your protocol. If you go to the store to get food to prep for the coming week but you come home missing the ingredients necessary for the recipes you were going to make, it’s not going to accomplish your goal. The same is true when you’re exercising.
The Exercise to Build Bone Density Continuum
Simply exercising is definitely better than the couch. Weight lifting is better than not. But lifting specifically in the way that builds bone density around your “osteo zones” of the hip, spine, and wrist is best.
We begin to lose bone density (unless we’re lifting weights specifically focused on preventing loss) after bone density peaks at 30. We lose about 8-10% of total bone density every decade. We’re living longer.
So the question at some point for each of us is going to be,“How do my bones look in that x-ray?”
It’s scary to be on the receiving end of an osteoporosis diagnosis. It can instill fear about the activities you love. It can make you wonder about picking up grandchildren, skiing, biking, or golf.
You have the ability to change the way you exercise and change the way you age by doing so. It’s not a matter of choosing exercise you love or prefer if you truly want to have the greatest influence on bone density. Yoga practitioners are using studies (and they do exist) to say yoga increases bone density.
But it’s on a continuum and it’s to the left of center. It’s better than not doing yoga. And if it’s the only weight-resistance activity you’re doing you’ll see some benefit. But if you want the gold standard for benefits of bone density you need to choose weight training.
Choose How to Build Bone Density Carefully
Body weight training will not provide the amount of resistance and load that you require to build bone density. Body weight training means pull ups, push ups, squats, and lunges with nothing more than your body weight will not help you beyond a certain point. Unfortunately, with many body weight exercises you are limited to strengthening muscles already tight (chest and front of shoulders), and unable to achieve strength for postural support from pulling exercises (can you do a pull up?), and may be a bit compromised doing hip-specific exercises (lunges and or squats).
Free weights are a step up from body weight. Provided you’re using good form going heavy many women are much STRONGER than they realize and can safely strength train at home with minimal equipment.
If you’re compromised or concerned about safety going heavy, machine weights should be a definite consideration.
Personal Opinion or Science-Backed Professional Advice?
I am a 200-hour Registered Yoga Instructor, a Pilates Reformer and Mat instructor, as well as a Medical Exercise Specialist and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. I have a passion for all things movement and creating unique solutions for the unique individual I’m working with. I love yoga and I love hiking and running and swimming. They, however do not build bone density for me any more than they do for you. This post is not personal opinion getting in the way of science and results.