Aerobic exercises are known to offer many benefits for overall health. Aerobic exercise, also known as “cardio” or cardiovascular exercise, typically includes movements that increase your heart rate. However, if you are an older adult (older than 65-years-old) looking to control or prevent bone loss associated with osteopenia or osteoporosis, some forms of aerobic exercise are more beneficial than others.
Benefits of aerobic exercise
There are many health benefits associated with aerobic exercises, including:
- Improvements in cardiovascular health
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased resting heart rate
- Improved mood
- Improved sleep
- Improved immune function
- Improved cognitive function
- Lowered risk of weight gain and chronic conditions
- Decreased risk of falls
- Improved bone health
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (50-70% of your maximum heart rate) each week (American Heart Association, 2018). This might sound like a lot, but it’s only about 22 minutes a day!
The best aerobic exercises for bone health
When it comes to improving bone health, not all aerobic exercise is created equal. Some aerobic exercises are weight-bearing, while others are not. Weight-bearing exercises are best for improving bone health. When your body works to support its own weight against gravity, your bones are stimulated to grow new bone cells. This can improve bone density and is especially important for older adults and those with osteopenia or osteoporosis.
Non-weight bearing aerobic exercises include:
- Water aerobics
- Chair yoga
- Seated weight lifting
Although these exercises have many benefits, if you are crunched for time and need to get your weekly dose of exercise to improve bone health, it is best to stick to weight-bearing exercises.
Weight-bearing aerobic exercises include:
- Brisk walking
- Stair climbing
- Yoga, Pilates, tai chi
- Aerobics class
Weight-bearing exercises can be classified as either low impact or high impact. This classification distinguishes the cardiovascular intensity and how much load your bones are taking on. For example, a low-impact exercise will be more gentle on your bones and includes activities such as walking, gardening, and yoga. In contrast, a high-impact exercise will load your bones and joints more and include activities such as running and jumping.
For those already diagnosed with osteoporosis, it is good to know your limits for high-impact exercises. For example, people who have had a compression or low trauma fracture should be extra cautious about participating in high-impact exercises. However, in people who have not experienced these types of fractures, high-impact exercise may actually be beneficial for their bone health (Brooke-Wavell, 2022; Kistler-Fischbacher, 2021). Generally, putting too much stress on already compromised bones might do more harm than good. Consult your healthcare provider if you are unsure where you may stand and which exercises are best for you.
The best exercises for bone health
While any exercise is better than no exercise, there are three types of exercise that are especially important for older adults looking to support bone health. These include:
- Weight-bearing exercise: Any of the activities listed above that involve your body against gravity. As mentioned above, these exercises build and maintain bone density to keep bones strong.
- Strength training: Includes any exercise that challenges your muscles to improve strength. These exercises may involve dumbbells, resistance bands, or your body weight and are typically done for 20-30 repetitions. Examples include bicep curls, push-ups, and squats. In addition, strength training supports joints and bones to protect them from injury and degradation over time.
- Balance exercises: Balance exercises challenge your body’s ability to maintain an upright position when presented with challenges such as a narrow base of support, a single-leg stance, or an uneven surface. These exercises can help prevent falls, which are especially risky for those with low bone density (Roghani, 2012).
If you are over 60 and want to strengthen your bones, your exercise routine should involve combining these three types of exercise as well as nutrition and lifestyle adjustments. Strength training and weight-bearing exercises can also be considered aerobic activity if your heart rate gets high enough. Ultimately, the best workout routine is the one that you enjoy doing and will stay consistent with.