Osteoporosis affects more than 40 million Americans – mostly women – and there is no cure.
What if folks over 60 could forestall the bone and muscle weakness that leads to fractures and falls?
And what if they could do it safely and effectively in a way that improves their overall health and wellbeing ... without drugs?
This would save billions in medical costs, keep health insurance rates lower, and even save lives. (Falls can lead elders – especially those over 70 – to a downward spiral toward failing health.)
New clinical research suggests that the right kind of exercise may well work wonders toward achieving these goals.
Of course, to enable optimal bone strength, people need ample vitamin D and adequate calcium – though less calcium than previously thought – plus other minerals (e.g., magnesium, potassium, and boron).
And, although it's not widely known, omega-3 fatty acids appear essential to bone health … while excess intake of omega-6 fats from vegetable oils weakens bones.
For more on this topic, see “Fishy Diets May Bolster Hip Bones”, “NASA Links Omega-3s to Astronauts' Bone Health”, “Omega-3 Fats Built Rats' Bones: Omega-6s Weakened Them” and other articles in the “Omega-3s & Bone Health section of our news archive.)
Tests of a new exercise program suggest that it could reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in people over 60 years of age.
The new approach was tested in Australia by a team from Deakin University and the University of Melbourne (Gianoudis J et al. 2013).
Exercise for bone health: All kinds are not equal
Exercise can be an effective way to improve bone and muscle health … and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures (Hourigan SR et al. 2006; Shumway-Cook A et al. 2007; Kemmler W et al. 2010).
As professor Robin Daly of Deakin University said, “Given that up to 60 percent of older people who fracture a bone don't have osteoporosis, it is important that programs are developed that reduce multiple risk factors … such as muscle strength, power and function as well as bone density.” (DU 2013)
He went on to note that most exercise programs for older people don't reduce all the major fall and fracture risk factors.
The Aussies set out to develop and test a new multi-faceted program focused on weight-bearing exercise and a new form of resistance training.
Their goal was to optimize “muscle power”, or the body's ability to produce fast, forceful movements.
The researchers said that this kind of strength is critical to optimizing balance, mobility and reaction time, all of which are important to reduce the risk of falls and fractures.
According to study co-author Jenny Gianoudis, PhD, “To develop muscle power you need to perform high speed movement exercises (also called power training) that are not normally seen in programs developed for older people.” (DU 2013)
As she said, “Optimizing muscle power is important because many common daily tasks, such as the ability to get up from a chair, climb stairs and walk quickly are strongly related to muscle power.”
“Even the ability to recover from a trip or a loss of balance has been shown to be strongly related to the ability to step rapidly or reach quickly for an object for support; factors associated with movement speed and thus power.” (DU 2013)
Muscle power trial proves it superior for bone health and balance
The Australian study evaluated the effectiveness of a new, multi-faceted, exercise-centered program called Osteo-cise: Strong Bones for Life.
The Osteo-cise program combines muscle-power training with osteoporosis education and encourages behavior changes intended to improve older adults' bone density, body composition (higher muscle to fat ratio), muscle strength, and functional performance.
Crucially, it involves a 60-minute exercise program targeted at osteoporosis and falls prevention:
  • So-called “high-challenge” balance exercises (e.g. using fit balls or standing on one leg).
  • A diverse range of moderate impact weight-bearing activities (e.g., step-ups or mini jumps).
  • Lifting weights at high speed (“power training”), with a focus on the muscles around the hips.
Any fitness pro (ideally, ASCM- or ACE-certified) should be able to shape a program that includes all three components.
If you want to ask a qualified trainer to set up a very similar program for you, print out the Intervention section of the published paper, and the Table 2 chart showing the training schedule. (You can also download it as a PDF, in which the Intervention section is on page 4 and Table 2 is on page 7.)
Trial finds “muscle power” exceptionally effective
The Osteo-cise program was tested in 162 men and women aged 60 years, for a full year.
Half took part in the program, while the other half only received information about osteoporosis … and both groups also received vitamin D and calcium supplements to ensure that nutritional shortcomings were not a factor.
After 12 months, the researchers found that those taking part in the Osteo-cise program had significantly greater improvements in their bone density, muscle power, strength and balance.
Susan Boyce, a participant in the study, said that the program was a life-changing experience: “I am now less tired and have more energy as well as more strength in my arms and legs. After a year I had also lost weight and could see from scans that the deterioration in my bone density had leveled off, which is a great result.” (DU 2013)
Following these promising results, the researchers want to see the Osteo-cise program rolled out more widely for people at risk for osteoporosis and fractures.
  • Deakin University (DU). Exercise program gives older people the power to prevent osteoporosis October 7, 2013. Accessed at http://www.deakin.edu.au/news/2013/071013exerciseandosteoporosis.php
  • Gianoudis J, Bailey CA, Ebeling PR, Nowson CA, Sanders KM, Hill K, Daly RM. Effects of a targeted multi-modal exercise program incorporating high speed power training on falls and fracture risk factors in older adults: A community-based randomised controlled trial. J Bone Miner Res. 2013 Jun 15. doi: 10.1002/jbmr.2014. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Hourigan SR, Nitz JC, Brauer SG, O'Neill S, Wong J, Richardson CA. Positive effects of exercise on falls and fracture risk in osteopenic women. Osteoporos Int. 2008 Jul;19(7):1077-86. doi: 10.1007/s00198-007-0541-7. Epub 2008 Jan 11.
  • Henwood TR, Taaffe DR. Short-term resistance training and the older adult: the effect of varied programmes for the enhancement of muscle strength and functional performance. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2006 Sep;26(5):305-13.
  • Kemmler W, von Stengel S, Engelke K, Häberle L, Kalender WA. Exercise effects on bone mineral density, falls, coronary risk factors, and health care costs in older women: the randomized controlled senior fitness and prevention (SEFIP) study. Arch Intern Med. 2010 Jan 25;170(2):179-85. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.499.
  • NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases: National Resource Center. Osteoporosis Overview. Accessed at http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Osteoporosis/overview.asp
  • Shumway-Cook A, Silver IF, LeMier M, York S, Cummings P, Koepsell TD. Effectiveness of a community-based multifactorial intervention on falls and fall risk factors in community-living older adults: a randomized, controlled trial. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2007 Dec;62(12):1420-7.