What is osteoporosis and what will help?

Osteoporosis affects 20 per cent of Australians over the age of 75, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The ABS also notes that osteoporosis is more common in women than men, affecting at least 29 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men over 75.

So, what is osteoporosis and why does it matter?

Bone tired

There are 206 bones in our body and they are designed to remodel throughout our life and well into our retirement years. Remodelling is an ongoing process of synthesis, or building of new bone tissue, and breaking down, or removal of old bone tissue.

When we are young, the synthesis is greater than the removal (which is why children grow taller), but during the adult years the synthesis and removal balances out.

As we get older and move towards retirement, the balance can tip the other way. This is when you may be diagnosed with osteopaenia or osteoporosis (which just means some of your bones are getting thin and more brittle).

Osteoporosis itself is not painful, but if you suffer from an osteoporotic fracture, the bone can be very painful and can take a long time to heal. If you have fractured your hip, spine or wrist in a minor bump or fall, it may be related to osteoporosis.

In fact, this is usually how osteoporosis is diagnosed, because there are no other symptoms to alert you that your bones are thinning.

Risk factors

As we get older, it is important to keep our bones strong by eating a healthy diet, exercising, and keeping alcohol intake low. It is also important to know your risk factors because some of us are more at risk of developing osteoporosis than others.

Interestingly, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) says that people with osteoporosis are almost three times more likely to describe themselves as having poor health than people who don’t have the condition.

This may be because fractures that are painful and slow to heal affect our ability to do jobs around the home, to socialise with family and friends, to move well and may even affect our confidence and mental health.

But it’s not all bad news

If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, there are lots of things you can do about it. There are medications your doctor can prescribe that will help increase the density of your bones, but the best thing you can start with is making sure you have adequate calcium and vitamin D and start a bone strengthening exercise program.

Will all types of exercise help your bones?

Research tells us that bones need specific types of exercise to get stronger and healthier. This unfortunately means that while swimming and cycling may be good for your heart, lungs and mind, they won’t help you to build strong bones.

Bones need weight-bearing impact loading exercises and resistance training to get stronger. These two types of exercises coupled with balance training to minimise the risk of falls will keep your bones in the best possible condition.

Weight-bearing impact loading exercise

Weight-bearing impact loading exercises are exercises that use your body weight against gravity with a little added impact. Jumping, hopping and stomping are all good examples.

Depending on how much impact you can tolerate, you will need to start at 10-20 repetitions of your chosen activity, building up to 50 repetitions and try to do it four times a week.

Unfortunately, walking, cycling and swimming just don’t cut it when it comes to building strong bones so instead, try stomping up and down a flight of stairs, jump off the gutter onto the road (if you live in a quiet street or near a park) or bound down the street when you walk your dog.

Resistance training

Resistance training just means exercises that use weights or resistance bands to build up muscle and bone strength.

The latest research tells us that high repetitions of a light weight will not have the same awesome benefits for your bones that low repetitions of a high weight have, but always start low and slowly build up when you are sure you are strengthening safely.

Squats, lunges and exercises with arm weights are all good options. You could try holding a carton of milk while you do a few lunges, practise some squats while holding your laundry basket full of wet towels or lift your arms out to your sides while holding a bag of rice in each hand.

Three sets of 10 repetitions is a good place to start and try to do them two or three times a week.

Balance training

Remember that osteoporosis often causes ‘minimal trauma fractures’, so one of the best ways to prevent a fracture is to prevent a fall.

Balance exercises can be difficult for some of us, so make sure you start your training with something to hold onto and gradually increase the challenge as your confidence improves.

Try standing on one leg while you brush your teeth, or perhaps heel-toe walking while you wait for the kettle to boil. You could even stand on a pillow and throw/catch a ball if you are confident that you won’t fall over.

Research tells us that the exercise needs to be challenging for it work, but just make sure you don’t fall over and have something nearby to grab if you feel too unsteady.

Balance training needs to be done every day for it to be effective, so try to schedule it or add it to something that you already do every day, such as boiling the kettle, walking the dog or brushing your teeth.

There are some great programs out there for building strong bones, so if you need a little help getting started or you are worried about how to exercise safely, have a look at your state’s physiotherapy or exercise and sports science websites, browse the Healthy Bones Australia website or speak with your GP.

Kate Roberts is an experienced physiotherapist and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. She has a passion for helping older Australians to manage their aches and pains. She is particularly interested in helping people to stay active and strong. When not working, she is kept busy with her three children, her two dogs and her secret dedication to pointing her toes and leaping in her regular ballet class.

Do you have osteoporosis? What are you doing to manage it? Why not share your tips with our members?

Also read: How healthy are your bones?


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