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What kinds of exercises build bone strength?

Bone mass and strength naturally diminish with age. But exercise can halt and even reverse this process. The most bone-beneficial exercises are those that involve weight bearing and strength training, because when muscles pull on bones, the skeletal system is prompted to build denser, stronger bones. That, in turn, helps slow mineral loss, lowering the risk of osteoporosis and injury from a fall. Weight-bearing exercise can be as simple as walking up a hill, climbing stairs, dancing or jumping rope. And strength training includes any resistance-based activity, such as those involving the use of free weights, weight machines or resistance bands.

Several studies indicate that high-intensity training is even more beneficial than basic strength training. In a 2004 Journal of Applied Physiology report, researchers compared the effect of strength training (slow resistance exercises) and power training (fast resistance exercises) on bone-mineral density in two groups of postmenopausal women. The latter group showed markedly better results.

Note: If you have osteoporosis, high-impact activities that increase compression in the spine and lower extremities (such as jumping, running or jogging) are not recommended, because they can lead to fractures in weakened bones. Instead, opt for exercises with slow, controlled movements, such as tai chi or aqua therapy.

Debra Fulghum Bruce PhD
Healthcare Specialist

Several kinds of exercise build strong bones to prevent and treat osteoporosis. These include:

  • Range-of-motion or stretching exercises, which help increase mobility, maintain flexibility, and reduce pain.
  • Weight-bearing and endurance exercises, which improve your conditioning and stimulates bone growth. 
  • Strengthening exercises, such as isometrics and strength training with free weights, resistance bands, or resistance machines. These build strong bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Weight-bearing exercises—the kind that force your body to work against gravity, such as walking, running, dancing, and tennis—are the best for keeping bones healthy. Yoga, strength-training, and working out on an elliptical can help, too. Swimming, bicycling, and water aerobics are good workouts, but they don't strengthen bone. The key, says Diane Schneider, MD, a geriatrician and the author of The Complete Book of Bone Health, is to simply be active. "It doesn't have to be exercise in the gym," she says. "You simply want to spend more time on your feet and move. You want to spend less time sitting."

Dr. David M. Slovik, MD
Endocrinologist

Exercise is helpful because movement that compels your body to work against gravity stresses your bones enough to stimulate the growth of new bone tissue. But in order to benefit bones, exercise must be weight-bearing, meaning that the activity must work against gravity.

Generally, higher-impact activities have a more pronounced effect on bone than lower-impact exercises. Therefore, activities such as tennis, strength training (also known as weight or resistance training), volleyball, or running build bone faster than walking or low-impact aerobics. Velocity is also a factor; jogging or fast-paced aerobics will do more to strengthen bone than more leisurely movement. While swimming and bicycling are excellent ways to keep fit, they aren't weight-bearing, so they won't improve your bone mass or density.

Also, only bone that bears the load of the exercise will benefit. For example, walking or running protects bones in your lower body. A well-rounded strength training plan can benefit practically all of your bones. And strength training is the only type of exercise that targets the very sites most likely to sustain fractures from osteoporosis—bones of the hip, spine, and arms.

To keep your bones healthy, aim to get at least 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise a day. It's important to exercise regularly; infrequent activity won't strengthen your bones.

The kinds of exercise that build bone strength include running and gymnastics. Skipping, jumping and martial arts also keep bones healthy and strong. Bone-strengthening exercises help with bone growth.

The best exercise to build bone strength is resistance training. This is a form of weight lifting that works on the muscles, but also adds pressure to bones to stimulate bone strength. Weight-bearing exercises are also good for bone health.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.