When I was 17, I broke my leg the summer before my senior year at band camp. To be specific, I dislocated my ankle and shattered my tibia. That’s right, shattered…I am totally hardcore. After I was seen in the Emergency Room, I was told there would be surgery to place implants in (one plate and eight pins to be exact), but there might be a complication. My bones were soft. If they could get the implants to stay correctly, it could cause issues further down the road. I was not doing a single thing to protect myself. I tell you this story not to brag (I still have a scar and everything. Jealous?), but to show you that we as humans hardly ever think about the future and our health until something major happens.
We rarely think about our bones unless one gets broken or fractured. Yet, they are essential for basic movement and protection. We generally don’t think about bone strength unless we are older, yet leading up to that there is so much we can do to help strengthen our bone density. As we age, we are losing bone mass. This decline in mass can lead to an increased risk of fractures. Bones are so much more than what our muscles attach to, and weight bearing activity, even resistance activity can go far into helping increase bone strength.
Before we go into the science of what makes a bone strong, let’s have a quick anatomy lesson.
Bone is fundamentally the living tissue that creates our skeleton. There are three types of tissue: Compact, Cancellous, and Subchondral Tissue. Compact Tissue is the outer hard part of the bone, Cancellous is a spongy-like substance that’s found inside, and Subchondral Tissue is what you find on the ends of your bones, covered by cartilage. Covering the entire bone is a tough membrane called the periosteum. The periosteum is what the tendons attach to that feed into the muscle and the ligaments that attach to other bones. There are 206 bones in an adult human not including sesamoid bones (floating bones found within tendons/muscles). There is much more to a bone than what I have gone over here, so if you would like to learn more, there will be a few links at the end for you to read up on.
As we age, bone loss can start to set in. This can start as early as your 30s. This could be due to osteoporosis/osteopenia, poor diet, disease, medication or lack of activity. Regardless, bone loss should not be taken as gospel as part of the aging process. There are certain things you cannot change, but your activity and how well you take care of yourself can.
Weight bearing exercise, be it high or low intensity, and strengthening exercises can be instrumental in maintaining bone density. But how does it do it? When you use weights, you are putting stress on your muscles. Stress on the muscles is in turn putting stress onto the bone. This stimulates osteoblasts (cells that synthesize bone tissue), helping to create new bone. When a bone is broken or fractured, your Physical Therapist gives you exercises to aid in healing after initial rest. This is the same system. The stress helps the osteoblasts create new bone to remodel the fracture or break.
So, this means you can just go out, lift a bit, and you’re ok, right?
While the weight helps, keeping the muscle flexible along with a healthy diet helps as well. A diet rich in calcium (along with Vitamin D to aid in absorption), omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, and magnesium all are essential to bone health. Foods such as dark leafy greens, high-quality calcium, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and a little sunshine can all help. Need some more ideas on how to get more of these in your diet?
Consult your favorite local dietician to help craft a diet just for you. If you are just starting out with your workout regime, and you have any questions on what type of exercise would be the best, ask your physician.
When all is said and done, there is more to weight bearing exercise than lifting. If you can’t or just don’t want to do high impact exercise, there are several low impact exercises that can be done, including:
- Elliptical Machines
- Low-Impact Aerobics (Zumba and the like)
- Stair step machines
- Weight machines (even a little weight with more reps can be good)
- Therabands/Resistance bands
There are several ways to ensure stability and strength in your bones and it is never too early to start thinking about it, especially women. One unfortunate card women get dealt in life is the propensity for osteoporosis. If you are from Northern European or Asian descent, you are at a higher risk. Again, you can’t change your sex, your genealogy, or family history. However, you can change how you eat, how you deal with stress, and how you take care of yourself. If you think of working out just in terms of something you do to look good, start thinking and digging a little deeper. You only have one you. Take care of that yourself. Don’t wait for a fracture or a break to make its way into your life to teach you a lesson.