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How to Get (and Keep) Strong Bones

Bone health and bone density are two things that most of us don’t think about until much later in life. But bone loss can begin in late 30s and early 40s, so don’t put it off until it is too late. Get-Fit Guy and Dr. Marc Bubbs discuss simple ways to reverse and prevent bone loss.

By
Brock Armstrong
5-minute read
Episode #537
The Quick And Dirty
  • Mid-life is a great time to start thinking about what you can do to support your bone health.
  • Once we know if and where we have bone loss, we can spot treat it with specific movements. 
  • To inspire our bodies to grow more bone cells we need to flex, squish, and squeeze our bones. 
  • Engaging in full body, weight-bearing activities can be just as effective as lifting weights. 

I have written about why exercise is essential for bone growth before but it is such an important subject, I think it is worth repeating. And this time, to set the stage for us, I asked Dr. Marc Bubbs, a previous guest on the Get-Fit Guy podcast, to fill us in on why this is so important. 

Dr. Marc Bubbs, ND, MSc, CISSN, CSCS just published a new book called Peak 40: The New Science of Mid-Life Health for a Leaner, Stronger Body and a Sharper Mind and in it, he covers many issues like bone density and gives a clear prescription of all of them. 

Mid-life and our bones

Mid-Life is a really important time to start thinking about what you can do to support your bone health. And it's not an obvious time, because the loss of bone density is a silent condition (we don't feel bone density loss). 

One in two women and up to one in four men will actually break a bone in their lifetime due to osteoporosis.

It's also important because half of all adults, aged 50 and older, are at risk of breaking a bone, and therefore really need to be thinking about their bone health. One in two women and up to one in four men will actually break a bone in their lifetime due to osteoporosis. We know that for women, that incidence is higher. And it's actually higher than the combination of heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer risk, which makes it a really important topic. The late 30s, 40s, early 50s is the time to implement habits to keep our bones strong so we can continue to perform our favorite sports or activities. 

What is bone loss?

So let's do a quick review here of definitions. What is osteoporosis? Well, let's use the World Health Organization's definition:

“It's a progressive, systemic skeletal disease characterized by low bone mass and micro deterioration of bone tissue, with a consequent increase in bone fragility, and susceptibility to fracture.”

So effectively, we're losing mass in the bone and it's becoming more brittle. And when bone becomes more brittle, you're at a much greater risk of fracture. And that's where things can really start to go wrong. 

Now, a hip fracture is a major, major issue because it's going to derail the quality of your life for anywhere from six months to a year. If you're over the age of 65, then 50% of hip fracture patients struggle to return to the same level of independent living they had previously. 

The good news is that the response of bone to aging is similar in both men and women. Although we know that men tend to attain a higher peak bone mass, the age-associated losses in bone mass tend to be accelerated in women. And this is particularly true in the early postmenopausal period because estrogen plays a really key role in bone health.

Exercises for bone health

Ok, now that we have a good understanding of what we are trying to avoid, let’s look at some ways that we can move our bodies to help maintain those strong bones. 

Let’s start with this, bone density loss is not usually a systemic (whole-body) problem. It is simply an indication of where on your body your bones have not been loaded enough or not loaded correctly. So, your bone loss is likely not happening equally, all over your entire skeleton, but rather in a few key places. 

The first step is, of course, to identify if you have bone loss and then find out where.

The first step is, of course, to identify if you have bone loss and then find out where. The best way to do this is through a DEXA scan. Then, once we know we have bone loss in a specific region of the body, we can treat it with weight-bearing exercises. And no, I don’t just mean lifting weights.

To encourage your bones to regenerate, you actually need to flex your bones (as odd as that sounds) which tells the bone cells to grow. And while that can involve lifting weights it can be achieved in more everyday ways too. 

Let’s say you have bone loss in your hip bone (which is actually, more accurately, the head of the femur) then you could look at ways to make walking a heavier activity. For example, you could stop using a wheelbarrow to carry mulch around your yard, and start carrying it around instead. 

Whole body bone strength

But if we don’t currently have bone loss, and we don’t want to have any in the future, what can we do? Well, remember that bone generation (and regeneration) is stimulated when you load the bone. That happens best when it is under tension and being squished by weight that is at least as heavy as your body (but heavier is better) and also when your muscles are tugging on your bones.

So to truly stave off future bone loss, we need to weight-bear and resistance train. Again, a little creativity can transfer this out of a gym setting and out into the real world. Some examples of great weight-bearing exercises are 

  • dancing
  • hiking
  • walking or jogging 
  • jumping rope
  • carrying or moving heavy loads (like groceries)
  • heavy gardening (digging and shovelling)
  • stair climbing
  • playing tennis 

If you want to satisfy your bone needs in a more traditional workout setting, look no further than the Five Essential Exercises

The five key exercises that I would love to see all of us modern-convenience-loving, chair-dwelling, workaday grumblers incorporate into our lives are:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Squats
  • Planks
  • Rotations

Of course, there are some genetic components to bone loss and also some things that you can do nutritionally to encourage your bones to get and stay strong, but if we want bone to grow, we need to start by squeezing the bone cells. Without squeezing these mechanoreceptor cells, all the delicious bone-growing nutrients that we ingest to support bone growth won’t be able to do their job. Your body can have plenty of them around but it won’t know what to do with them. So squeeze, squish, and flex those bones!

Check Dr. Bubbs' book Peak 40: The New Science of Mid-Life Health for a Leaner, Stronger Body and a Sharper Mind. If you have any questions about today's content, please reach out on social media at @drbubbs on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Take care and be well.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.