As patients age, bone and joint health can degrade, with osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and other conditions worsening over time. Exercise can help, but this can be intimidating, especially to those with existing bone disease or other health problems. Patients may not always listen when their physician recommends an exercise program, but new research suggests it may be even easier than they think to get enough exercise. According to a recent study, older women can improve their bone health by running just one minute a day, reducing their chance of fracture compared to their less-active peers.
The encouraging study comes from scientists at the University of Exeter and the University of Leicester. The researchers analyzed data from more than 2,500 women in the UK Biobank, including activity levels, as measured for a week by wrist monitors, and bone health, as measured by a heel bone ultrasound scan. The activity data was broken down by the minute, which allowed researchers to analyze short bursts of daily activity.
When they crunched their numbers, the researchers found that those who had brief bursts of high-intensity, weight-bearing activity had better bone health than their peers. The researchers defined this activity as the equivalent of pre-menopausal women going for a medium-paced run or post-menopausal women going for a slow jog. When women performed just 60 to 120 seconds per day, on average, of high-intensity exercise, they had 4% better bone health than those who exercised less than a minute a day.
As beneficial as just one minute of exercise was for bone health, it did not stop there. The researchers found that more than two minutes a day of high-intensity, weight-bearing exercise helped boost bone health by 6%. Although more exercise is still better, it seems that at least one minute can help, an easy target for most patients to hit.
The researchers caution that there are some limitations to their study. They are unsure yet whether it is better for women to exercise all at once or to exercise in small bursts throughout the day. As well, because the study looks at a brief period of time, the researchers were unable to tell if the exercise definitely led to better bone health, or if those with better bone health were performing more of this type of exercise. That said, the researchers recommend at least this brief exercise to improve the chance of better bones.
For those wishing to start this type of exercise regimen, the study authors recommend taking the advice of the U.K.'s National Osteoporosis Society and start slowly. That organization recommends starting with walking and increasing the amount each day. Then, the researchers say, patients can start adding a few running steps here and there throughout the walk. By doing this, they can increase their daily burst of activity, and hopefully, improve their bone health.
Just like exercise can build muscle, it can also build bone and slow bone loss, along with improving coordination and balance to prevent falls and fractures. Weight-bearing exercise is best for bone health, such as walking, jogging, hiking, climbing stairs, weight training, dancing, and tennis. Swimming and bicycling do not work against gravity in the same way, so although they may be beneficial for muscle strength and general health, they are not the ideal choice for bone exercise. For those that already have osteoporosis, experts recommend avoiding exercise that flexes, bends, or twists the spine, reducing the chance of injury, and experts also recommend low-impact exercise to reduce the chance of breaking a bone. Patients should talk to their doctor about which type of exercise is best for them and their particular medical condition.
Although osteoporosis can affect men, postmenopausal women are most at risk from the bone disease. When estrogen levels drop, bone loss can occur, increasing the chance of fracture. Osteoporosis is usually a silent disease, with the patient unaware they have an issue until they break a bone, unless they receive X-ray testing from their doctor. That said, some people may experience back pain, a stooped posture, or a decrease in their height, signaling that bone loss is occurring. Osteoporosis drugs can help reduce bone loss, allowing bone to build up, but it seems exercise can also help reduce the chance of bone loss and fracture. One minute a day may be all it takes.
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