Hey, Ladies: Exercise for Bone Strength, Not Just Weight Loss

by Ashley Alexander on January 26, 2012

As obesity continues to plague Americans, exercising for weight loss seems to be at the forefront of education, news, and entertainment.  But exercise has benefits far beyond just losing weight, including research supporting its potential to ward off osteoporosis.  A recent study in Sweden confirms that high-impact exercise can improve bone density in younger women, giving them better protection against developing fractures as they age.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Mike Baird (http://bairdphotos.com).

Osteoporosis, a disease characterized by thinning of the bone, appears most often among women over age 50.  Weakening of the bones increases the risk for fractures, which can be especially dangerous at older ages.  It is possible to prevent bone thinning, but the steps must be taken long before the disease strikes since peak bone density is achieved by the time a woman reaches her thirties.

Many types of exercise can help shed pounds, but only weight-bearing exercise—for instance, jogging as opposed to swimming—is recommended for increasing bone density.  Weight-bearing exercise requires resistance from muscles and bones, which helps to make them stronger.  While weight-bearing exercises have been known to be the key type for developing stronger bones, the newest research suggests there may be differences even between similar activities.

By investigating the normal exercise routines of more than 1,000 25-year-old women, the study found that high-impact weight-bearing activities, particularly jogging and spinning, led to stronger bones than similar low-impact exercises like walking and regular cycling.  Researchers believe these differences occur because higher impact exercises involve more jumping and strength-training which place more resistance on the skeleton, better stimulating bone growth.  And, high-impact activities are typically more vigorous, burning more calories and helping facilitate weight loss.  Win-win!

Updated 1/26/12 at 4:38pm.

PF Anderson January 27, 2012 at 9:43 am

I have a couple thoughts on this.

Thinking of this as reaching out to the public, I’d love to see mention of a few other forms of high impact load-bearing exercise. Jogging, as an example, is something no one in my family is allowed to do because of defective knee joints. I don’t even know what spinning is supposed to be. What would be some others?

A kind of a lose-lose point is bringing up weight loss as a benefit in the context of young women who are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. I remember a young woman athlete who used to run explicitly because she didn’t want to ever have a period. She would have loved this research, but for the wrong reasons. I know it is really hard to handle this sort of challenge in the context of a blogpost, so I guess just clarify context of for whom this is a benefit, and for whom it would not be?

Last, procedural. I love that you gave a link to the original article, but sometimes journals change publishers, or publishers redesign websites, and links go bad. It’s nice to include enough information that someone could track down the article in some other fashion if the link did break.

M. Callréus, F. McGuigan, K. Ringsberg and K. Åkesson
Self-reported recreational exercise combining regularity and impact is necessary to maximize bone mineral density in young adult women: A population-based study of 1,061 women 25 years of age
DOI: 10.1007/s00198-011-1886-5

Ashley Alexander January 27, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Thanks for your comments. You bring up an excellent cautionary point about young women who may be over-exercising to achieve excessive weight loss. I didn’t necessarily mean that all young women should be, or are, exercising in hopes of losing weight, but was rather trying to frame the discussion of exercise in the context that it is so frequently mentioned these days, but I can see where such a topic needs to be handled with care.

Maria P January 27, 2012 at 9:56 am

I found this topic very interesting, as I think about osteoporosis from time to time since my mom got diagnosed with it. I’ve always known I needed to exercise, not to lose weight but for the other health benefits. Knowing this motivates me to exercise even more. I just need to find the time and the right exercise routine. Just like PP said, I wish you had provided other alternatives to jogging, but I think that’s a minute detail. Overall, great post.x straight to the point and makes for an easy read.

Ashley Alexander January 27, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Thanks for reading!

Mary M January 27, 2012 at 10:00 am

That’s good to know. But as someone well beyond 25 I wonder how relevant that data is to someone closer to losing bone…? If there was additional data from other studies that included older women it might help to support this.

I also wonder if it would help men at all. Can you get your husband off the sofa to go for some exercise with some additional data? I guess I wanted more context than this one study I guess.

I agree with PF on including the paper info in the post somewhere–sometimes that’s what I have to search with (author name, words in a title, etc). Also, altmetrics strategies may need more than a link to pick up the details.

Ashley Alexander January 27, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Mary, you are right that there are a lot of people that may or may not be included in the benefits of this research in particular. The focus of this study had a very rigid sample of women who were all 25 years-old, but surely there is research out there about what may benefit older women and how these results compare with men. Perhaps I will delve more into this topic in the future. Thanks for reading!

Anna January 27, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Ashley, while I like your conversational tone (helps to reach out to nonscience public) I wish this blog was a little heavier on the science side. This didn’t tell me anything I haven’t learned from watching tv (a low standard).

Ashley Alexander January 27, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Anna, I agree, I kept this post quite simple in terms of the science-y details. I will work on finding a balance in future posts! Thanks for reading!

Kelly January 27, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Hey Ashley
I have to say your article title and first line were real attention grabbers – good job on compelling me to read this. That’s the first part of the battle. I did however find the article a bit on the ‘light” side, and found it interesting that moved from talking about the general (obesity, weight bearing exercises) to one specific study. I actually wasn’t clear on what “study” you were emphasizing in the last paragraph. I think a bit more time teasing out some of the concepts in the middle could go a long way to connecting with more readers.
Good start!

Ashley Alexander January 27, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Thanks for the feedback, Kelly. Communicating research to a general audience definitely requires a balance between conversation and scientific details, and I hope to improve with future posts!

G Kendall January 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm

In response to Mary M’s comment, I, too, am way beyond the age 25 group. I was diagnosed with osteoporosis at age 54. I go to an Osteoporosis specialist who told me that exercise for me will not improve bone density, but it does have a benefit in strengthening muscle–the stronger your muscles, the less stress on your bones and the better your balance.
Interestingly, heavier women generally have denser bones than petite ones. They have spent years carrying around all that weight! (But inviting other health issues due to excess weight).

Ashley Alexander January 27, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Based on this study and the background on osteoporosis I used, I agree that this notion of high-impact exercise for bone strengthening is really only beneficial for that younger age bracket (up to about 30 years or so). I kept to just the findings of that study in this post, but there is definitely a much wider conversation that can be had about osteoporosis and bone density. Interesting point about muscle strength and balance as those are very relevant to preventing fractures. Thanks for your comments!

Angela January 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Ha – looks like I’ve been lucky: was always too broke to afford swimming pools until after the age of thirty. Now swapped jogging for swimming… mostly, anyway ; ) Got a question, as I’ve never seen the inside of a gym: how does spinning differ from cycling?

Ashley Alexander January 30, 2012 at 2:10 am

Angela, glad you asked about spinning vs. cycling as someone did previously and I forgot to address it. As far as I gathered from the article, and my limited cycling experience, spinning is considered high-impact because of the time spent hovering over the seat of the stationary bike while pedaling. Not sure if that’s totally the difference in the context of the study, but seems to make sense that there would be greater weight-bearing for spinning if that is the case. Thanks for reading!

Patricia January 28, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Like your post, but I think it is a little too technical for reaching everybody. You need to explain things like spinning, given that if you’re not in the exercise routine you won’t know.

Also, I would love to see this not only for americans. There are a lot of countries that have the same problem (mine for example, México), and what you’re talking about can be applied to any women in the world. Moreover if you are talking about osteoporosis.

Also, you can add some more exercises. Running and jogging are two of the most difficult, given that overweighted people can injure their knees with this exercises.

Ashley Alexander January 30, 2012 at 2:25 am

Thanks for the comments, Patricia. I will work on balancing the technical discussion with examples that more people can relate to in the future!

MB Lewis January 29, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Like your take on the topic, Ashley. A lot of women I know also exercise for cardiovascular benefit, but I won’t argue that obesity is most topical. I feel like I heard this point made years ago, but it certainly isn’t top of mind. Popular media do much warning about dangers of high-impact, but pointing this out for younger people allows a more informed choice, with all tradeoffs in the balance.

Ashley Alexander January 30, 2012 at 1:44 am

I thought the study was interesting since so often we hear about calcium as prevention for bone thinning, and this provides a different take. I agree there are definitely age and injury limitations to high-impact exercises, but this research is very relevant for a younger set. Thanks for your comments!

Debbie Morrison January 29, 2012 at 11:22 pm

HI Ashley, I enjoyed reading your article, and the comments from followers, and I have some of my own comments from the perspective of a 47 year old woman who is health conscious and has been exercising for several years.

Your first paragraph is strong, your thesis is explicit, how weight bearing exercise can help women in their early twenties prevent Osteoporosis. You may have provided more support for your thesis had you given further examples and explanations of ‘weight bearing exercises’. My experience is that most people don’t know the difference between weight bearing exercises and non- weight bearing, perhaps explaining this may help. You mention swimming, maybe you could explain, that though swimming is good overall for cardiovascular health (and weight loss), adding weight bearing exercises twice per week in addition to swimming might be effective. I have included an example here of a page which provides a list of weight bearing exercises, http://www.webmd.com/osteoporosis/living-with-osteoporosis-7/exercise-weight-bearing?page=2 , including something similar (perhaps more scientific) would be helpful for your readers who are not familiar with exercising.

Also as other readers have mentioned, your article appears to be targeted to 20 something’s. Is there something that 40 somethings can do to combat Osteoporosis? Though I do realize you are writing to explain one particular scientific report, and in your case it is one that deals with a specific age group.

Overall very good Ashley! Good title to the article, good outline of your thesis and clear, strong writing! Thank you!

Ashley Alexander January 30, 2012 at 1:32 am

Thanks for the feedback, Debbie! I actually considered whether or not I should have been more explicit in what I meant by “weight-bearing exercise” so thank you for the link. You’re right that since I was focusing just on this study that it’s geared to a younger audience. I’m not sure what strategies are out there for women over age 30, but I’m curious as well!

Kristy E. January 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Ashley, I love the title of this one; it pulled me in from the beginning. Also, you did a great job of getting right to the point and not overloading this with information.

I’m around the age group of the women featured in this study, so I found the information particularly interesting. I never knew weight-bearing exercise had potential for preventing osteoporosis. Unfortunately for me, after 20 years of dance training, my ankles and knees just can’t handle much weight-bearing exercise. I am curious what else can contribute to increased bone density, for those of us who cannot participate in many weight-bearing exercises. Also, I am curious whether the study mentioned any non-weight-bearing exercises that may be able to increase bone density, as well.

Ashley Alexander January 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I, too, was unaware of the benefit of certain types of exercise in promoting bone strength (always just thought I needed to pump up my calcium intake). In terms of what types of exercise can contribute to stronger bones, weight-bearing activities are effective due to the resistance required by your muscles and bones in order to support your own weight. If cardio-based activities aren’t the best for you due to injuries, my understanding is that strength training and weight lifting can be effective too. Thanks for your comments!

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