Exercise is a proven way to build bone and improve muscle strength. Strong muscles and bones are pillars of health, allowing you to stay mobile and independent as you age and making you less vulnerable to various conditions and pathologies.
Weight-bearing exercises will elicit a bone-building and muscle-strengthening response, making them an important component of any exercise program for someone with osteopenia or osteoporosis.
What are weight-bearing exercises?
Weight-bearing exercises involve moving your own body weight against gravity. These are typically done standing up (strengthening the legs) or with your hands on the ground (strengthening the arms). Some common weight-bearing exercises include walking, lunges, squats, stair climbing, push-ups, and planks.
Weight-bearing exercises can be classified into multiple categories. Some types of weight-bearing activities are also considered aerobics. Aerobic exercise involves getting your heart rate elevated above your resting state. These exercises can be high or low-impact.
For example, brisk walking is considered a low-impact, aerobic and weight-bearing exercise. This is because it involves moving your body against gravity, elevating your heart rate, and is gentle on your joints.
Running, on the other hand, would be considered a high-impact, aerobic and weight-bearing exercise. This is because running increases your heart rate and involves moving your body against gravity, but it is more taxing on your ankle, knee, and hip joints.
Specific weight-bearing body-weight exercises can also be considered resistance training or strength training exercises. Squats, lunges, and push-ups are examples of strength-building, weight-bearing exercises that use your own body as resistance. When performed regularly for enough sets and repetitions (3 sets of 10-15 repetitions is typically recommended), these movements can build strength in the involved body parts leading to improved bone health.
As you can see, these exercises can involve your own body alone. Or, they can be made more challenging by adding free weights, dumbbells, or resistance bands.
Weight-bearing exercises for osteoporosis
Weight-bearing exercises are specifically helpful for those with osteoporosis since they can improve your bone health. The force placed on your bones by moving your body against gravity elicits a response at the cellular level that stimulates more bone cells to grow. With more bone growth, bone density will increase and decrease the likelihood of broken bones.
These exercises will also improve muscle strength. When your muscles are strong, your bones and joints are better supported. Think of your muscles as a built-in brace for your joints. You will also have more control of your body, decreasing your chance of falling and, once again, decreasing your likelihood of sustaining bone fractures.
Some more examples of weight-bearing exercises include:
- Jumping rope
- Stair climbing
It is important to note that you should only do certain types of high-impact, weight-bearing exercises like jumping after a thorough physical exam and consulting with your doctor. Recent research has shown that jumping can be a part of a bone-healthy exercise routine. Yet, preparing the body for high-impact exercises slowly is important to not put excessive, harmful pressure on your bones (Brooke-Wavell, 2022).
Non-weight-bearing resistance exercises
It is important to note that you can also perform resistance training in non-weight-bearing positions too. For example, a bench press is not weight-bearing since you are lying on your back. However, it is a great exercise to strengthen your chest and arm muscles. Conversely, a push-up is an example of a movement that strengthens those same muscles but in a weight-bearing position.
Swimming is a great aerobic exercise but is not considered to be a weight-bearing exercise. While it has many health benefits, it does not involve moving your body against gravity. Instead, gravity is eliminated once in the water. This makes it non-weight-bearing, and not a top exercise for bone health.
Safety tips for weight-bearing exercise and osteoporosis
If you have osteoporosis, consider which weight-bearing exercises are best for you. As mentioned, high-impact exercises will significantly load your joints more than low-impact exercises.
If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, high-impact exercises may not be the best for you. This is because your bones are more fragile and you could risk fracturing before building bones if you place too much load through your bones.
If you were just diagnosed with osteopenia, your bone density is higher. Therefore, it may be safe for you to try higher-impact, weight-bearing exercises for osteopenia.
If you are still unsure if high-impact exercises are safe for you, speak with your healthcare provider or physical therapist. Someone who knows your medical history can best guide you.
Weight-bearing exercises examples
Some weight-bearing exercises go without much explanation, such as walking and running. Others can be performed in an exercise class.
Below are easy-to-do weight-bearing exercises that you can do anywhere as part of a muscle-strengthening exercise program.
The squat strengthens your quadriceps and glutes to make it easier to perform daily activities such as standing up, sitting down and climbing stairs. Increased strength of your lower body muscles also helps decrease your fall risk. Squats place weight through the knees, hips, and spine.
- Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart.
- Bend your hips and knees as if you are going to sit down in a chair. Your goal should be to bend your knees about 90 degrees. Then, return to the starting position.
- Inhale as you bend your hips and knees. Exhale as you return to the starting position.
- Perform this 10-15 times. This is 1 set. Rest for 30 seconds. Perform 2 more sets.
Forward step ups
Forward step-ups are a great functional exercise that strengthens the leg muscles and mimics the daily task of going up a step or a flight of stairs. In addition, step-ups induce weight bearing through the spine, hips, and knees.
- Begin standing in front of a step or at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Stand tall with your weight evenly distributed between both feet. Hold onto a handrail (or two) for balance if needed.
- Place your right foot in the middle of the step. Push through the right foot to step up as you lift your left knee to hip height. Stand tall on your right leg, then slowly lower the left foot back down. If you feel more comfortable, simply place the left foot on the step as you step up rather than lifting it to hip height.
- Exhale as you step up. Inhale as you return to the starting position.
- Next, step up with your left foot, repeating this movement on this side.
- Perform 10-20 repetitions in total (5-10 repetitions to each side). Rest for 30 seconds. Perform 2 more sets.
The lunge is an excellent exercise that targets the large muscles of the legs. In addition, lunges promote good hip and knee mobility and balance, improving one's ability to perform daily activities such as going up and down stairs and getting up from the floor. Lunges induce weight bearing through the spine, hips, and knees.
- Begin in a split stance, with one leg in front of your body and the other leg behind your body. Your hips and toes should be pointed forward. If you feel well-balanced, place your hands on your hips, out to the sides, or behind your head. You can hold onto a countertop or stable chair if you need extra support.
- Slowly lower your body using the front leg to control the movement and the back leg to stabilize. Lower as far as you feel comfortable until the front knee bends to a 90-degree angle.
- Hold for 1-2 seconds, then push through the legs as you return to the starting position.
- Exhale as you lower. Inhale to return to the starting position.
- Perform this 10-15 times. Then do this on the other side. This is 1 set. Rest for 30 seconds. Perform 2 more sets on each leg.
The plank is an excellent full-body exercise, particularly for the core and upper body. It is weight-bearing through the hands, wrists, and shoulders.
- Begin on your hands and knees with your hands shoulder-width apart, your neck and spine long, and your knees and feet resting on the floor.
- Engage your abdominal muscles as you walk your feet behind you until your knees are straight and your shoulders, hips, and knees are in a straight line. The feet should be hip-width apart.
- Breathe normally as you hold for 15-30 seconds, eventually working up to a 1-minute hold. Take a break for 30-60 seconds. Perform 2 more sets.
The modified push-up involves doing a push-up on your knees. It is a great exercise to strengthen the shoulders, chest, arms and core muscles while also weight bearing through the wrists, arms, and shoulders.
- Begin in a plank position, then drop your knees to the floor. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart. Your abdominal muscles should be engaged so your shoulders, hips, and knees are straight. Your knees should be bent with the bottom of your feet pointed toward the ceiling.
- Keeping your lower abdominal muscles engaged, slowly lower your chest to the ground by bending your elbows. Make sure you keep your shoulders, hips, and knees in a straight line throughout the exercise.
- Straighten your elbows and push yourself back up to the starting position.
- Perform 6-12 repetitions. Rest for 30 seconds. Perform 2 more sets.
Weight-bearing exercises are essential to a well-rounded exercise program, especially if your goal is to build or maintain bone mass. Which type of exercise you decide to participate in depends on your preference and current health status. If you want to be more efficient in your workouts, it might make more sense to perform exercises that are both weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises.
For example, walking is a physical activity that is good for your bones and overall health but will not strengthen your muscles the way squats can. So if you’re short on time, your best strategy to build or maintain bone density is a workout that includes squats, lunges, and planks since you will get a weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening response in the upper and lower body.
It’s also important to note that balance exercises complete a well-rounded fitness routine. Balance exercises involve weight-bearing through the legs and improve balance, prevent falls. Another example of a two-for-one activity!
Lastly, you can only exercise and expect to build bone with the proper diet. Having adequate calcium and vitamin D will provide your body with the building blocks your bones need to rebuild new cells.