Physical Activity

Building Strong Bones Through Exercise

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Grace Zuccarello has been a food chemist for the past seven years. She is Chief of Product Development for Paleo Butter Co, which specializes in Paleo and Primal based foods.

Strong, healthy bones provide the body’s muscular support, strength and mobility. Our skeletal systems are the foundation for every type of movement we control and even those intracellular systems that we don’t. The phrase “strong bones” refers specifically to one’s bone density—meaning how closely packed the bone cells are to one another. Strong bone cells that are highly compacted help to ward off injury, and keep us mobile. Simply put, cells that are more compacted create stronger bones and stronger bones lead to better health.

Any athlete will tell you that proper mobility is the basis for improvements in all athletic endeavors. But how can we tell if our bones are strong? Short of a bone density test or an injury, it’s impossible to see into the health of our skeletal structure. Day-by-day they function just as they did yesterday—maybe with a little more or less flexibility, so there’s no need to worry, right? Wrong.

Your bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. When you’re young and healthy, these two processes work in balance, but after your late 20’s, the scale eventually begins to tip towards breakdown. This breakdown process for the bone includes being mineralized, destroyed and then being reabsorbed back into the blood stream. It’ll occur regardless of one’s health.

When new cells are created, the cells will do what they need to in order to create new mass. This means a few things: the new cells will take nutrients from other parts of the body and these new cells may not be as compacted or healthy. Overtime, it can lead to numerous bone problems that are difficult to reverse. Osteoporosis is the most well known. To make matters worse, in our mid to late twenties, the amount of new cells created starts to taper off.

For these reasons, building and maintaining strong bones should be viewed as a life long project. Strong bones are the result of high bone density and we know that this means the cells are closely compacted, so what builds strong bones? How do we increase bone mineral density?

How to Build Strong Bones

First, consider your age and own personal health factors. Notice if there are any areas of concern. If you’re in your mid-to-late twenties, chances are you’ve already begun to experience a decline in the amount of new cells being created although you may not feel it. The older an individual is, the more degeneration they’ve endured. Also, if you’ve sustained mobility injuries (broken bones, fractures, etc.), then you already know which areas of your body are sensitive and that they should be treated as such. Women should also pay extra close attention to their age and how they feel because bone density can be impacted by their menstrual cycle or menopause. In short, if you feel that there’s cause for concern, get a bone mineral density test and speak with your doctor. This will provide accurate information of your specific bone density and where you stand health wise.

Making sure that your bones are healthy enough to take on a functional fitness program is the first step towards building stronger bones.

How Exercise Increases Bone Density

The next step in building strong bones is to work with ones you’ve got. Most athletes like the pain and pleasure that comes from working out, so most of you will find this next aspect fun. Quite simply, an increase in bone density is the result of specialized bone cells being signaled to respond to an area of stress.

These new cells work to repair the area by filling it in with additional cells. The cells that were already there and the new cells become impacted more closely together due to the stress response and voila—bone density increases.

The Mechanostat (promoted by Harold Frost, and based on Wolff’s Law) is a paradigm that describes the bone density process in detail and it also explains how individual bones and bone groupings can have different stress thresholds when stress is initiated. For example, the weight and time that works for your lower legs, won’t apply to your arms. It’s useful to take a look at if you want more insight into how our bodies go through “bone loss, adapted state and bone gain.”

Weight bearing (high intensity, low intensity & low impact) and muscle strengthening exercises both help to illicit the necessary stress responses and are the preferred methods of exercise.

Exercises For Building Strong Bones

Weight Bearing High Intensity

How does this work? Well, weight bearing, high intensity is any type of exercise that uses one’s lower body (feet and legs) to work against gravity in order for the movement to be completed. Your feet are off the ground for the majority of the time and you’re not trying to keep them there. Think running, dancing, jump roping, basketball, hiking and my personal favorite, squats. Weight lifting in general factors into this category.

Weight lifting is beneficial in that it’s the fastest and most convenient way to create a stress response (Put more weight on the bar!). It can also work more than one area at a time: your legs and arms can both be simultaneously engaged. Also, the amount of weight and time spent can be exponentially increased depending on one’s personal record.

Keep in mind however, that regardless of the weight bearing, high intensity method you frequently choose, routine is the enemy of progress and varied movements are the way to go. Why? Because the targeted area will be the area where you increase bone density.

Routine is the enemy of progress and varied movements are the way to go. Why? Because the targeted area will be the area where you increase bone density.

If you’re a runner, you’ll develop stronger bones throughout your legs. Think of the last workout you did and how the bone density increase applies to you. Next time you workout, try to include parts of your body that you normally neglect or just don’t prefer to train as much. The recommended amount of time is anywhere from 15-20 minutes of high intensity movement with at least an eight hour stretch between if you are planning on doing more than one per day. Switch it up to build strong bone mass.

Weight Bearing, Low Intensity & Low Impact

Weight bearing, low intensity exercises are good for overall health, but they usually won’t provide the stress necessary for an increase in bone density. This could be a low impact cardio machine or light outdoor sports where you aren’t sweating or out of breath. Low impact (ex: swimming and yoga) is right under low intensity. It isn’t likely the stress response will be caused because muscle and skeletal exertion is low.

They do have their place, however. Variation and intensity is key with any good functional fitness program. For example, your skeletal system benefits from low impact exercises in that they aid with posture and balance.

One last word on low intensity and low impact: if you’re sensitive in a specific area (ex: osteoporosis or a broken bone) and can’t perform high intensity, then these two areas can be adapted to fit your personal needs. The stress response is not as easily initiated, but again, it depends on the individual and the activity being performed. One man’s mile is another man’s foot. And, the intensity by which the exercise is performed can also factor. For example, a casual walk finished with a run will bring you into higher impact. Advanced yoga requires resistance and body weight so again, you’re crossing into a higher category.

Muscle Strengthening

What makes muscle strengthening different from weight bearing? Resistance, mostly and outside objects. It’s a slight differentiation, but some insist that adding additional weight to your hands and increasing resistance by using a weighted object is all it takes. Others say that using one’s own body weight can qualify as muscle strengthening. For the purpose of understanding how variations and additional weight can increase bone mass, we’ll go with the first suggestion; it is the introduction of a weight.

This is where beginner exercises can be brought into the next level. This is where athletes begin to hit their PR’s and quickly beat their own. For example, if you’ve done basic squats and just introduced a bar, you’ve now begun to incorporate muscle strengthening into your weight bearing, high impact workout. Your shoulders are now benefiting alongside your leg bones. Congratulations. Keep it up.

This is also where the line would get drawn between a sport like running and weightlifting. Both are weight bearing, high impact, but running is not considered muscle strengthening to some in the weight lifting community. For the purpose of building bone mass by initiating a stress response, the run is limited to only the legs.

So, you can think of muscle strengthening as the next step towards achieving your personal fitness goals. Next time you’re hiking in the woods, think about building bone density in your arms by curling some of your supplies. Keep in mind that a good functional fitness program will have overlaps of the two and varying the specific exercises will help you cover a great amount of bone area.

As we increase our athletic abilities through functional fitness, our bodies shift towards the positive. While it isn’t possible to stop the degeneration of our current bone cells, we can exercise in order that the number can be increased. The amount of bone density increases by altering workouts and increasing our threshold for growth. Strong bones function as our bodies support and mobility. Like all things worth achieving, strong bones are not built overnight: the progress is slow, sometimes hard to see, but definitely worth the result.