What are the best exercises for building stronger bones?

a woman lifting weights
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As we age, our bone health starts to deteriorate, so what type of exercise can we start, to strengthen our bones? We asked Dr Rebecca Robinson about how we can turn back the clock on our bone health.

'It's no secret that exercise doesn't just build strength and fitness - it helps improve bone health, too. In most cases, higher bone density isn't a tangible thing, so it's probably not high on your list of priorities - but it should be.

'Healthy bone density - the amount of calcium and other minerals that are packed into your bones - is important for bone strength, reducing your risk of fractures and osteoporosis.So where does exercise come into this? It helps to understand that your bone is active, living tissue, and that exercise can stimulate it.

Weight-bearing exercise, like walking or running, stresses the bone mechanically, forcing it to adapt and become stronger. This leads to osteogenesis, the creation of brand-new bone cells. High-impact exercise isn't the only way to build stronger bones; strength-based exercise, such as weight training or Pilates, can also help because it loads the joint at the points where the working muscle is attached to the bone by tendons.

Generally, exercise strengthens bone in the area being trained and the plane (direction of movement) in which it's loaded. So, even if you run, it's a good idea to undertake some multi-directional loading, too - such as tennis, gym-based plyometrics or strength training - as well as upper-body work to ensure your whole body benefits.

Healthy bones are built in youth, for life. You reach peak bone mass in your late twenties, and after this, it gradually starts to decline. After menopause, this happens even faster, thanks to the loss of estrogen. Bone strength will decline with age, but exercise can help counter this loss. If you have risk factors for thinner bones - for example, you've been significantly underweight, you've had an early menopause, or there's osteopenia or osteoporosis in your family - it's worth visiting your GP to set up a bone density scan.

If you have lower bone density, you might need hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or other medication but you can still benefit from exercise -I'd recommend getting help from a health professional, such as an exercise medicine doctor, who can create a programme that will help you build strength safely.

All weight-bearing exercise can be beneficial. Some exercises like those you'd find in boxing and CrossFit, are compound (moves that work more than one muscle group) and can build both weight-bearing strength and capacity in the tissue that connects bone to muscle, such as tendons and ligaments.

If your preferred activity is an aerobic one, which doesn't impact bones, like cycling or swimming, adding in something like a gym, yoga or Pilates routine that loads the bone is a good idea- you'll feel it in your bones.'

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