Osteoporosis and Exercise: Part Four

There is no “secret sauce” to give you optimal health and wellness, but strength training is probably the closest thing we have to a magic pill.  Strength training has been shown to benefit nearly every system in your body; from the obvious (muscular and cardiovascular) to the less appreciated (mental and gut health).  Yet another system that can be positively impacted by strength training is your skeletal system.  There are a few plausible explanations for how strength training impacts bone health, and while the exact mechanism isn’t completely clear at this point, we know a few things:

  1. When you load your body via major movement patterns such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc., you are creating stress on your entire system, including muscles, tendons, ligaments and your skeleton.  
  2. When you create mechanical stress on your muscle tissue, there’s a cascade of events that (hopefully) lead to your muscle becoming stronger over time.  A similar process occurs with your bones, as multiple studies have demonstrated that mechanical loading leads to an increase in bone formation.

It’s never too late to take advantage of the benefits of strength training as it relates to your bone health.  A fantastic study published in 2013 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning followed post-menopausal women through a 12-week strength training program. To be eligible for the study, the women had to be at least 2 years post-menopause and must have been diagnosed with either osteoporosis or osteopenia.  

This study had the experimental group perform heavy squats, while the control group was instructed to continue with their normal physical activity regimen.  

“The training session started with a warm-up including 2 sets of 8–12 repetitions at approximately 50% of the participant’s training load, followed by 4 sets of 3–5 repetitions at 85–90% of 1RM…The participants were encouraged to perpetuate until fatigue.”  

That’s interesting:  sounds pretty familiar to what you might encounter at Paragon during a strength block!  

The authors measured several interesting variables, including maximal squat strength as well as bone mineral density at the femoral neck and lumbar spine, the two most commonly-studied areas of the bone to determine bone health.  As expected, the group performing heavy squats on a regular basis improved their squat strength significantly more than the control group.  The most interesting findings relating to bone health canfound in the table below:

In the experimental group, we see an improvement at the lumbar spine Bone Mineral Density (BMD) by an average of 2.9% over the course of 12 weeks.  The same property measured at the femoral neck improved by 4.9%, while the total size of the bone at each site increased by 2.4 and 5.2%, respectively.  These numbers for the experimental group are all significantly greater than those of the control group.  This demonstrates the potential benefit to regularly performing heavily-loaded full-body strength exercises such as the squat.

Now that we’ve established these potential benefits, does this mean that anyone who’s been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia should immediately start squatting as heavy as possible tomorrow?  Please don’t.  This research was carried out with the help of experienced strength coaches.  These coaches were responsible for helping each participant with technique and also to help modify their loading progress week after week.  

If you don’t have a coach, my recommendation would be to start out with exercises that you can perform safely and competently.  You’ll want to start out with a weight with which you’re able to perform 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps.  It does appear that the intensity of the exercise positively correlates with skeletal benefit, so over the course of several months, you’ll slowly want to add weight and decrease your reps, until you’re performing somewhere between 3-6 reps per set. These sets should not be very comfortable and should be challenging to recover from.

If this type of training sounds like something you’d benefit from, but you’re unsure where to start or perhaps you’re worried about getting injured in the process, I highly suggest connecting with a coach who can help.  Lucky for you, our coaches at Paragon are highly qualified and love helping people achieve greater health.

Stay tuned for the next part of this blog series coming next week! We’ll be discussing cardio and bone health.

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