Bottom Line: If osteoporosis has given you cold feet when it comes to exercise, here’s how to get them moving again.
Is the fear of an osteoporosis-related fracture keeping you from being active? While the bone thinning disease does put you at high risk for fractures, exercise should be part of your bone-building efforts. And walking could be the perfect choice. You just need to know how to do it safely and effectively.
Even though you can’t see what exercise does for your bones the way you can marvel at what it does for your muscles, it does have a similar effect, making your bones stronger.
In fact, bone strength depends on two types of exercise: weight-bearing exercise such as walking, in which you carry your own weight…and muscle-strengthening exercises such as weight lifting. There’s a synergy at work—the push and pull of muscle against bone during these exercises strengthens them both. What’s more, this combo also increases flexibility, coordination and balance, all of which work together to prevent falls—which of course greatly reduces your risk for fractures.
A word of caution: Even though walking is such a natural part of life, be sure to talk to the doctor who manages your osteoporosis care before you start a rigorous walking program in case you need to take specific precautions, said Susan Besser, MD, a primary care physician with Mercy Personal Physicians in Baltimore, Maryland. Once you’re cleared to start, use the following plan to get the most out of your walks…
How long to walk: A Swedish study involving nearly 67,000 men and women found that just one hour a week of walking was enough to reduce fracture risk. Note: This is far less than the national guideline of 150 minutes per week of aerobic activity needed to achieve general fitness, so be sure to work with your doctor or a physical therapist to make sure you reach all your health goals. Make that hour per week your starting point and build up from there.
How often to walk: Consistency is important to strengthen bones and muscles so aim to walk most days of the week. You may find it easier to walk in 10 minute bouts to reach your weekly goals and that’s ok.
How fast to walk: If you haven’t walked much for a while, it’s ok to start at whatever pace feels comfortable. Ultimately, though, you should work your way up to walking speed of three to four miles per hour—you’ll know you’re going fast enough if you can maintain a casual conversation, but not be able to sing. A brisk rate is optimal for getting the heart benefits of walking.
Minimize your risk of falling by choosing walking paths with smooth, level surfaces. (Do work to improve your balance and your muscle strength with exercises specifically designed to meet those goals, such as tai chi and weight lifting respectively.) It’s wonderful to get outside, but you might also consider a mall walking club for bad-weather days to minimize the potential for slipping.
Be consistent about using any assistive devices, such as a cane or brace—these aids will help you avoid a fall and possible fracture.
Protect your spine by avoiding twisting while you walk. If you want take a look at something directly to your side or say a friendly word to someone behind you, stop walking and turn with your feet to do so.
Be sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D to give your walks the greatest chance to boost your bone health.