To help keep your bones strong, get moving

Weight-bearing exercise is important for bone density in women, Florida study finds

Life After 50

April 20, 2003|By Bev Bennett | Bev Bennett,TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

Grab those free weights or head to your gym for resistance training. A regimen of exercise, along with calcium and vitamin D, may be the prescription for reducing your risk of osteoporosis, regardless of your age.

Preliminary studies showing the benefits of resistance and weight-bearing exercise on bone density may be welcome news to the millions of Americans, most of whom are post-menopausal women, suffering from osteoporosis.

Until recently, many women went on hormone replacement therapy as a treatment to slow the bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis. However, as they discontinue the drugs because of recently revealed health risks, medical experts worry that they may increase their risk of osteoporosis.

"We're concerned because many women are no longer taking hormone replacement therapy," says James Jessup, an associate professor at the University of Florida's College of Nursing. "They're not exposing themselves to the sun for fear of skin cancer, so they don't get vitamin D, and they're not drinking milk, which provides calcium."

In a small pilot study at the University of Florida at Gainesville, Jessup and fellow researchers showed that age-related bone loss may be reversible.

"We've known for years that physical activity helps with weight loss," he says. "We were amazed that we got results on bone density and blood pressure reduction."

Volunteers who followed the protocol increased their bone density by 11 percent, their strength by 26 percent and their balance by 27 percent. In addition, they lost an average of 5 pounds and decreased their systolic blood pressure by 10 percent.

University researchers recruited 20 women ages 60 to 75 to measure the effects of weight-bearing and resistance exercise, calcium and vitamin D on slowing the bone loss that commonly occurs with aging. By the end of the eight-month study, 18 women had completed the experiment. All the participants followed their usual diets. They also took 1,000 milligrams of calcium, as well as 400 International Units of vitamin D. The calcium supplement provides more calcium than most women get in their diets, but less than the 1,200 milligrams a day experts recommend for seniors.

Exercise was the difference. Half the women participated in supervised calisthenics, strength training, walking and stair climbing for 60 to 90 minutes three times a week. They worked with weight machines and received balance and agility training. They wore weighted vests while doing cardiovascular exercise. This group saw the improvement. The women who didn't exercise experienced an average bone density decrease of 5 percent, even with the calcium and vitamin D supplements.

Weight-bearing exercise is essential to preserving or building bone, says Jessup. Although seniors are often encouraged to do more walking, it may not be adequate for bone strength. "Walking is a good cardiovascular exercise, but it's not for bone density," he explains. "You need a weight-bearing exercise. That's why we use weighted vests."

Jessup says he next wants to repeat his investigations, using 300 women over a period of three years.

Health-care professionals advise you to see your physician before you start a vigorous weight-bearing program, especially if you've been diagnosed with osteoporosis. They also say you should not rely solely on vitamin pills for calcium and vitamin D. You can get these nutrients from food sources.

Seniors can get the calcium they need from almost four glasses of low-fat milk a day or a combination of milk, low-fat yogurt and hard cheese, such as Parmesan. One cup of skim milk has 315-350 milligrams of calcium; a cup of yogurt has 425-450 milligrams of calcium and 1 ounce of grated parmesan has about 340-390 milligrams of calcium. You can also find fortified orange juice with the calcium equivalent of milk. You can also use milk to prepare foods -- such as adding it when you cook oatmeal or scramble eggs -- as an easy way to add calcium to your diet.

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