How Much Weight Do You Need to Add to Strengthen Your Bones?

Box of stretch bands
You need weight-bearing exercise and strength training for healthy bones, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be using the heaviest weight you can.
Disclaimer: If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Well Guide contain information from peer-reviewed research, medical societies and governmental agencies; however, these articles are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Calcium gets a lot of credit for being responsible for building strong bones. However, exercise—especially the right kind—is just as crucial for bone health. In order to elicit a bone building response, you must exercise with force that exceeds the demands of normal daily activities. This can be done in a variety of ways and with different types of equipment, such as dumbbells or exercise bands.

Weight-bearing exercise for strong bones

Weight-bearing exercise involves any movement in which you have to support your body weight. These can be done with your bodyweight alone or with resistance. This type of exercise helps build bone (when you’re younger) and helps protect against bone loss (when you’re older).

Any type of physical activity will benefit your overall health, but weight-bearing exercises are best if you have low bone density. When you bear weight through your bones, it stimulates the bones to produce more cells, improving bone mass and, therefore, bone strength.

Some examples of weight-bearing activities include:

  • Jumping rope
  • Tai chi
  • Climbing stairs
  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Gardening
  • Low impact aerobics

Why you need both types

It is worth noting that weight-bearing exercise alone is not enough for healthy bones. It is vital to have an exercise program that incorporates both weight-bearing exercises and strength training to optimize the bone-building effect. Weight-bearing activities stimulate bone growth by loading the bones against gravity. More robust muscles protect bones and joints.

A 2015  meta-analysis involving post-menopausal women found that combining resistance training with weight-bearing exercises such as walking is more effective at increasing bone mineral density (a measure of bone strength and health) than only performing resistance training (Zhao, 2015).  Another study found that walking alone was not enough to preserve bone strength when compared to those who participated in both walking and resistance training (Martyn-St James, 2008).

So how much resistance should be used? In short, you should be adding weight to increase the usual demand on your body so that you are loading the body more than you would normally experience while performing daily activities. The exact amount can be different for each person. By using exercise bands or weights, muscles and bones are loaded and challenged in a way that will stimulate growth.

The greatest bone stimulating effect from resistance training is when load is increased slowly over time. So if you are just beginning to perform resistance exercises, find a resistance that will allow you to perform 2 sets of 8-12 repetitions with good form but that leaves you feeling challenged. After 3 months of using this resistance, you should be able to gradually increase the weight or band being used.

Are heavier weights better for your bones?

Weight-bearing exercise can include aerobic activities that involve moving your own body weight. Aerobic exercises are considered to be low or high-impact exercises. High-impact aerobic exercises, such as running, jogging, and jumping, puts more force through your bones and are not for everyone. Those with advanced osteoporosis, a history of falls or low bone mineral density should avoid this type of exercise to prevent the risk of fractures.

When it comes to strength training exercises, the resistance used does not have to be extremely heavy to elicit an effect. Resistance can be added to a movement through resistance bands, weight machines, or free weights, such as dumbbells. Some resistance exercises, like squats, don't even need added weight to be considered strength training. For example, squats can be varied and more challenging by simply changing the pace (squat down for 3, stand up for 1).

Many weight-bearing exercises are also strength training exercises. When adding weight to movements, more doesn’t always mean better. As long as you are adding some resistance or challenge, you will be eliciting a muscle strength building and bone-building effect.

How to get the best results

To get the best bone-building results from your workouts, consider the following:

  • Varying workouts to include lifting weights, aerobic activity, and balance exercises to combat or prevent osteoporosis and lower fracture risk.
  • Making sure that your body has the resources it needs to build new bones and muscles. So be sure to eat a diet with plenty of calcium and vitamin D.
  • Meeting with a  physical therapist who understands osteoporosis and its possible progression. A physical therapist can assess your specific needs and deficits and ensure you are moving forward with the best course of exercise for your body.

Getting the correct dosing. The Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation recommends performing weight-bearing exercises (30 minutes a day on most days of the week), muscle-strengthening exercises (2-3 days per week), and balance exercises (every day).

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References

  1. Benedetti MG., Furlini G, Zati A, Letizia Mauro G. The effectiveness of physical exercise on bone density in osteoporotic patients. BioMed Res Int. 2018;2018:1–10. doi:10.1155/2018/4840531.
  2. Hong AR, Kim SW. Effects of resistance exercise on bone health. Endocrinol Metab. 2018;33(4):435. doi:10.3803/enm.2018.33.4.435.
  3. How much exercise do you need? Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation. Accessed May 21, 2022. https://www.bonehealthandosteoporosis.org/patients/treatment/exercisesafe-movement/how-much-exercise-do-you-need/
  4. Martyn-St James M, Carroll S. Meta-analysis of walking for preservation of bone mineral density in postmenopausal women. Bone. 2008;43(3):521–531. doi:10.1016/j.bone.2008.05.012.
  5. Testing your balance. Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation. Accessed May 21, 2022. https://www.bonehealthandosteoporosis.org/patients/treatment/exercisesafe-movement/testing-your-balance/
  6. Zhao R, Zhao M, Xu Z. The effects of differing resistance training modes on the preservation of bone mineral density in postmenopausal women: A meta-analysis. Osteoporos Int. 2015;26(5):1605–1618. doi:10.1007/s00198-015-3034-0.