A recent study out of UCLA reveals that most of the bone loss that occurs with menopause happens in a contained time period starting the year before menopause and including the two years following menopause. It’s scary to think that a natural life transition can leave us with weaker bones. Why would Mother Nature allow this to happen? Well, she probably didn’t.
Bone loss in menopause happens primarily because of imbalanced hormones (not just naturally dropping estrogen levels) and a lack of exercise — both of which Mother Nature gave us the resources to overcome. In this article, we’ll focus on exercise.
The most important thing for you to remember is: the bone you’ve got is good so let’s keep it! The old adage, use it or lose it, certainly applies to bone health and menopause. Let’s take a closer look.
Maintaining bone in menopause
It’s common for women to lose about 10% of their bone in the 10 years around menopause, but now we know it’s that year before menopause and the two years after that count most. It’s hard to know for sure when you’re exactly one year away from menopause, but you’ll begin to get clues from your body when your hormones start shifting. These may include hot flashes and night sweats, weight gain, fuzzy thinking, fatigue, hair loss and more. Symptoms associated with menopause sometimes begin several years before our periods actually stop. So even if you start a new exercise routine well before menopause, it’s not as if there are any harmful side-effects!
Here are some of the exercise modalities that I believe are great for bone health. I explore each of these with a personal trainer in my Exercising for bone health DVD.
Pilates. I like Pilates as an exercise because it has such a focus on alignment. We tend to look down and bend down as we age, leading to poor posture and weakness in the small muscles around the spine. Pilates helps strengthen these spinal muscles and the bone attached to them. Pilates also helps us experience a feeling of elongation as well as encouraging deep, natural breathing.
Yoga. Yoga is wonderful for bone health on many levels. For one, it helps improve balance and coordination, both important in preventing falls. In yoga you learn to hold poses for long periods and shift your body weight to one side or the other. Both of these practices offer an extra load that creates more tension from tendons pulling on bone. The more tension, the more new bone your body will make. Yoga also has lots of stretching, which we now understand also stimulates new bone growth. Dr. Loren Fishman has proven in his pilot studies that just 10 minutes of yoga a day can improve bone density.
Isometric exercise. In my practice, I’ve used resistance bands and the Osteoball to facilitate the pushing and pulling action that accompanies isometric exercise. The reason this type of exercise is so good for bone is that it can isolate one muscle group at a time to really work that muscle group and the bone attached to it. Isometric exercise is particularly helpful if you have joint tenderness or pain.
Weight- bearing training & Strength training: Because our bones build and rebuild as needed, intense weight-bearing leads to muscle and bone growth. The more intense or heavier loading leads to even more bone growth. One German study indicates an 11% increase in the bone mineral density of the hip after three years of strength training in postmenopausal women. In this study the strength training regimen was enhanced by use of a weighted vest while exercising.
Tai Chi: Tai Chi is an ancient exercise that helps strengthen bone while relaxing the mind. It increases balance and flexibility and has been shown in multiple studies to slow bone loss. Research shows that long-term practitioners have better bone mass density as they age than those who don’t practice Tai Chi.
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Gentle, low-impact exercise slide show
Leg lifts are performed lying flat on your back on a firm surface (a floor with a mat, for example).
Leg lifts on hands and knees – keep your back parallel to the ground, and lift your leg only as high as is comfortable.
Arm squeeze, in which you bring your elbows together in front of your face and return to a position perpendicular to the spine (do not twist at waist or turn or bend the spine.)
Sit upright in a chair, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Do this holding weights if you can.
Lift arms straight up from your sides, above your head, while holding weights if you can.
Raise yourself up on your toes, hold for as long as you can, then slowly lower yourself down again.
Start in a seated position with a chair in front of you for balance, then raise yourself to your feet while maintaining upright posture. Lift your body using the muscles in your legs, buttocks, and lower back, not the muscles in your arms or upper back (extend your arms to the front chair for balance, but do not press upon the chair back).
Exploring any and all of these bone-friendly exercises will help you preserve the healthy bone you have right now. There are also many other ways to use your bones and muscles more, such as:
- Walking after dinner or before work in the morning
- Running up the stairs at least once a day
- Hopping on one leg, or both
- Riding your bike to work
- Going dancing or clearing out your living room for a dance party
Here’s your chance to get creative and have some fun while moving your body and building your bones. Exercise will likely help with your other menopause symptoms as well.
Notes on building bone during menopause
If you want to build bone during the menopause transition, it may take a more intensive exercise plan. In the case of early post menopausal women with osteopenia, some research indicates that the isolated effect of simply increasing habitual physical activity does little to increase muscle strength. But this just means that women with a diagnosis of osteopenia or at otherwise higher risk need a more deliberate and structured exercise program instead of randomly increasing habitual physical activity. Use of a weighted vest while exercising is often of great benefit during this period of rapid bone loss. It might also be a time to consult a personal trainer for help crafting a routine to fit your needs and preferences.
To learn more about menopause and your bones, see my article on how to stop bone loss during the menopausal transition.
Exercise does not stand alone
Exercise is one of those “bone treatment” plans that doesn’t have negative side effects. As far as I can tell, the side effects of exercise are all positive. But exercise isn’t the only way to create better bone health through menopause.
There are 20 key nutrients that aid us in building bone and I recommend trying our exclusive Better Bones supplements to be sure you get enough of all of these nutrients every day. As I mentioned earlier, hormonal balance is also important in preventing menopausal bone loss. Eating an alkaline diet, engaging in practices that promote regular detoxification, and managing your stress also boost your bone health. Our Better Bones Program can help you with all of these elements — and we make it simple and easy to understand.
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General Research on Exercise, Bone Strength and Fracture Reduction
Barry, D. W., and W. M. Kohrt. 2008. Exercise and the preservation of bone health. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention 28:153–162.
Bloomfield, S., N. Williams, D. Lamb, and R. Jackson. 1993. Non-weightbearing exercise may increase lumbar spine bone mineral density in healthy postmenopausal women. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 72:204–209.
Brown, S. 2000. Better bones, better body. Los Angeles: Keats.
Carter, M. D., G. Lester, R. DeMasi, and R. Talmage. 1991. Bone mineral content at three sites in normal perimenopausal women. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research 266:295–300.
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Guadalupe-Grau, A., T. Fuentes, B. Guerra, and J. A. L. Calbet. 2009. Exercise and bone mass in adults. Sports Medicine 39:439–468.
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Manske, S. L., C. R. Lorincz, and R. F. Zernicke. 2009. Bone health: Part 2, physical activity. Sports Health 1:341–346.
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Zhang, P., G. M. Malacinski, and H. Yokota. 2008. Joint loading modality: Its application to bone formation and fracture healing. British Journal of Sports Medicine 42:556–560.
Strength Training and Weight Bearing
Cussler, E. C., T. G. Lohman, S. B. Going, L. B. Houtkooper, L. L. Metcalfe, H. G. Flint-Wagner, R. B. Harris, and P. J. Teixeira. 2003. Weight lifted in strength training predicts bone change in postmenopausal women. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35:10–17.
Dalsky, G., K. Stocke, A. Ehsani, E. Slatopolsky, W. Lee, and S. Birge, Jr. 1988. Weight-bearing exercise training and lumbar bone mineral content in postmenopausal women. Annals of Internal Medicine 108:824–828.
Engelke, K., W. Kemmler, D. Lauber, C. Beeskow, R. Pintag, and W. A. Kalender. 2006. Exercise maintains bone density at spine and hip EFOPS: A 3-year longitudinal study in early postmenopausal women. Osteoporosis International 17:133–142.
Fiatarone, M. A., E. C. Marks, N. D. Ryan, C. N. Meredith, L. A. Lipsitz, and W. J. Evans. 1990. High-intensity strength training in nonagenariams: Effects on skeletal muscle. Journal of the American Medical Association 263:3029–3034.
Grove, K. A., and B. R. Londeree. 1992. Bone density in postmenopausal women: High impact vs low impact exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 24:1190–1194.
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Kemmler, W., S. von Stengel, J. Weineck, D. Lauber, W. Kalender, and K. Engelke. 2005. Exercise effects on menopausal risk factors of early postmenopausal women: 3-yr Erlangen fitness osteoporosis prevention study results. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 37:194–203.
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Tsukahara, N., A. Toda, J. Goto, and I. Ezawa. 1994. Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies on the effect of water exercise in controlling bone loss in Japanese postmenopausal women. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology (Tokyo) 40:37–47.
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Weighted Vest Strength Training
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