How does resistance training prevent osteoporosis?
Resistance training has gone from a niche sport or cross-training tool for athletes to a popular pastime with its own culture—but its benefits are anything but a passing trend. This type of exercise is a vital tool for anyone trying to prevent osteoporosis or osteopenia.
Women, take note: Even though we’ve long shied away from the weight room, resistance training is critical for building and maintaining our bone health. Women lose bone mass earlier and faster than men, which is what makes resistance training especially important with aging. You don’t have to go straight for the dumbbells, but when it comes to integrating resistance training into your fitness routine—the earlier, the better (Alswat, 2017).
The best exercises for osteoporosis
Workouts can chisel off fat and build lean muscle, but they also benefit our bones. Medical experts suggest two types of exercise for osteoporosis: resistance training and weight-bearing exercise (Porter, 2021). Each of these helps your bone health in different ways.
Resistance training doesn’t have to involve lifting weights, either. Resistance training is any exercise in which you need to move against the pressure of a weight, whether that’s a dumbbell or your bodyweight. This includes:
- Lifting weights
- Using resistance bands
- Working with your body weight (i.e. squats, step-ups, push-ups)
- Using weight machines at the gym
That doesn’t mean resistance training is the end-all be-all of osteoporosis prevention, though. A meta-analysis looking at post-menopausal women found that combining this style of training with weight-bearing exercise such as walking is more effective at increasing bone mineral density (a measure of bone strength and health) than resistance training alone (Zhao, 2015).
How resistance training prevents osteoporosis
You may have heard that muscle is built through a process in which tiny tears in our muscles are repaired even stronger during recovery. Your bones are similar. When you exercise, there is a healthy amount of pressure that is put on your bones. (McMillan, 2017).
This pressure prompts your body to release chemicals that kickstart specialized cells that help with bone repair and growth. These new cells eventually turn into bone cells that add thickness and strength to your existing bone material. The whole process results in new bone material and stronger bones (McMillan, 2017).
Researchers know that age-related declines in muscle mass and strength (called sarcopenia) are associated with diseases like osteoporosis and osteopenia. Low muscle mass and osteoporosis specifically seem to go hand-in-hand in most men and women aged 20 or older, one study found (Jang, 2020).
What you can do
You should integrate resistance training into your workout routine as soon as possible. The sooner you start, the more time you have to build new, strong bone cells to help prevent osteoporosis.
If you’ve never done resistance training before, it’s OK to start small and use a program to guide you. Bodyweight exercises can be a good place to start. As you gain strength, resistance bands are a low-cost, easy way to keep challenging your muscles and bones. If you want to head straight to the weights, that’s great, too.
Sustainable changes that build resistance training into your weekly routine are best. Try to do some type of resistance training 2-3 times a week. Throughout those sessions, aim to work all parts of your body. The areas being directly stressed through resistance training get the most bone-building benefit (McMillan, 2017).