How to move: with osteoporosis

Ageing brings with it inevitable physical declines, including loss in bone density which can lead to osteoporosis. This condition affects 3.8% of Australians, although many people don’t know they have it until they have a bone fracture. Importantly, it can be prevented and managed through lifestyle factors including exercise.

“Physical activity is one of the most effective tools to counter age-related health conditions,” including osteoporosis and osteoarthritis (which impacts the joints), says accredited exercise physiologist Richelle Street.

There can be several barriers to moving more, compounding the problem. “Fear of falling, fear of pain and fear of fractures are typical obstacles to engage in physical activity in older persons,” Street says. Other barriers include social isolation and limited transport.

But the benefits are far-reaching, including increased bone density and reduced risk of falls and fractures, physical fitness and strength, improved posture, mobility and enhanced mood and vitality. And most physical activity is safe for people with osteoporosis, exercise physiologist Abbey Dalton says, although it’s important to avoid the risk of falling.

There are some general recommendations, but readers are advised to consult with a health professional for a safe exercise plan.

The move: squat to overhead press
Some types of exercise are particularly good at increasing bone density, thus reducing the severity of osteoporosis and risk of fracture, according to Dalton. These are high-impact, multidirectional activities (such as tennis or volleyball) and weights heavy enough that you can’t lift them more than eight times before tiring.

They might not be for everyone, though. “If this kind of training isn’t for you then focusing on preventing falls is going to be more your target,” says Dalton.

An ideal strength exercise would be a squat to overhead press using dumbbells, as it loads and strengthens as many bones as possible in one exercise. If you need to build up to this, Dalton suggests starting with a sit to stand off a chair with light weights, or even modify it so the arms don’t go right above the head, then build up as the shoulders get stronger. Be sure to keep a straight back, bending at the knees and sticking the bottom out rather than stooping forward.

The class: tai chi
Some facilities offer specific osteoporosis exercise classes, which can be a great way to learn skills to manage it.

If balance is an issue, which is important for avoiding falls, Dalton recommends a tai chi class. This can also help with improving posture and body strength, says Street. Another option is a falls-and-balance class. One that includes some basic strength training will give even greater benefits. If you’re able to tackle it, a heavy-weight class can help build bone density. Ideally, a mixture of activities will give optimal results.

“A class that has some variety with a circuit of weight that gets all the different muscle groups and some bounding and jumping, such as box jumps or side shuttles, will give the most benefit if achievable for you,” Dalton says.

The activity: dancing
Here’s where you can turn up your favourite music and have some fun in your own home. “You would be surprised how often I prescribe people dancing in their lounge room – particularly for those with osteoporosis,” says Dalton. “If you are able to dance where you jump and bound around in all different directions as randomly as possible, this is really good for bone density.”

On a less vigorous level, Healthdirect recommends some simple balancing exercises such as standing with the feet close together, standing on one leg or walking backwards.