Exercises To Combat Osteoporosis

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What do a can of peas, a bottle of water and a towel have to do with osteoporosis? You can use all of them in place of weights in exercises to help prevent the debilitating bone disease, according to Mirabai Holland, a public health advocate and Director of Fitness and Wellness Programs at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Holland, whose exercise video, Skeletal Fitness, was named "Best Workout for Bones" by Prevention magazine some years back, is making it easy to get started, with exercises you can do using every day items found around the house.

One such exercise is wrist curls using cans or water bottles that each weigh about a pound. With arms bent at right angles at the elbows and palms facing up, you use only your wrists to curl the cans up and then back down. The towel exercise entails extending your arms overhead, slightly bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together to bring the ends of the towel together. This exercise is good for your spine, according to Holland.

"Exercises using these every day items are great for people just starting out on an exercise program, because they have nothing to buy, no gym to join," Holland says. "They can get going with a low weights and gentle resistance while building up their strength. Exercise, along with a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, can mean the difference between having healthy bones or suffering a devastating fracture later in life."

Osteoporosis makes bones weak and fragile and more prone to break. About 10 million people in the United States already have the disease and an estimated 34 million more are estimated to have low bone mass, placing them at increased risk, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

Half of all women and one in four men over age 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime, according to the foundation. Osteoporosis usually progresses painlessly until a bone breaks. Fractures often occur in the hip, spine and wrist. In advanced stages of osteoporosis, an act as simple as opening a window can cause a wrist fracture.

How does exercising prevent osteoporosis? Just as a muscle gets stronger and bigger the more you use it, a bone becomes stronger and denser when you place demands on it, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. A lack of exercise, particularly as we get older, may contribute to lower bone mass or density.

Two types of exercises are important for building and maintaining our bones: weight-bearing and resistance exercises. Weight-bearing exercises include jogging, walking, stair climbing, dancing and soccer. Swimming and bicycling are not weight-bearing.

Resistance exercises use muscular strength to improve muscle mass and strengthen bone. These activities include lifting weights or using resistance bands.

It's also critical to consume enough calcium, and the amount varies as we get older. "The highest-calcium foods are milk and yogurt," says Rebecca Solomon, a registered dietitian at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who recommends non-fat and low-fat products. "For those who do not consume milk products, Solomon says canned fish such as salmon with bones and sardines are also good sources of calcium. When taking calcium supplements, they should also contain vitamin D, because it aids in calcium absorption.

Experts say it's important for people to build and maintain strong bones throughout all stages of their lives. "It's never too early or too late for people to start taking care of their bones," Holland says. "They should consult with their doctor to see if they're at risk for osteoporosis and determine the best course of action."

More information on osteoporosis, as well as exercise tips and articles, are available at the Web site:

Osteoporosis Exercises

For your spine:
Get a towel and extend your arms overhead pulling the ends of the towel slightly bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat up to 6 times.

For your wrists:
Use hand weights or go to your pantry and grab some cans. They weigh about a pound apiece. Hold your arms bent at right angles at the elbows palms up and using only your wrists, curl the cans up toward you and then back down. Repeat 8-15 times. Then hold the cans palm down and curl them up away from your body then down. Repeat 8-15 times.

For your hips:
Hold on to a chair or wall and while standing on one leg lift your other leg straight in front of you slowly up, then down 10-15 times. Then switch. It's a double bone loading whammy for both the leg you are standing on and the leg you are lifting.