Some exercise for the strength gains or endorphin rush, others because it’s good for their ticker and brain. And, according to orthopedists, there’s another huge reason to exercise: It’s good for your bones.
“Exercise has a direct effect on bone density. With exercise, bones become stronger,” says. Tristan Emily Bickman M.D., O.B.G.-Y.N. and author of Whoa, Baby!. In fact, exercise is a crucial part of supporting healthy bones throughout the years.
Some types of exercise are better bone-builders than others, though. Here, the experts dish on how exactly exercise benefits your bones—and which types of movement to focus on.
Yes, You Do Need To Support Your Bones
Though our bones may seem darn-near indestructible, our bodies are constantly breaking down and rebuilding them, explains Bickman. It’s nothing to be alarmed about—unless you lose bone tissue faster than you rebuild it.
When that happens, bone tissue and mass decline, and we face a condition called osteoporosis. Literally meaning ‘porous bones,’ osteoporosis puts us at increased risk of fractures.
“In people with osteoporosis, fractures of the hip, spine, and wrist are most common—and can occur as a result of the simplest day-to-day activity,” Bickman says. (Often, people don’t realize they have osteoporosis until they get injured, but bone density exams can also reveal the condition.)
Our bone density begins to decline starting around age 35, so the older we get, the higher our risk of osteoporosis, says Bickman. Since women have smaller bones and lose bone faster than men, they’re more susceptible to the condition.
“Family history, diet, activity levels, substance use, and certain medications can also increase or decrease risk,” Bickman adds. “That’s why exercise is an important part of preventing and managing osteoporosis.”
How Exercise Improves Bone Density And Health
Simply put, exercise can increase bone tissue production, which is called ‘osteoblast activity.’
“Certain movements cause our muscles to push and pull against our bones in a way that tells the body to increase the rate of bone growth,” explains Allen Conrad, B.S., D.C., C.S.C.S. of the Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in Pennsylvania.
Plus, exercise can increase muscle mass, which also has protective benefits for our bones. “Developing muscle helps increase coordination and balance, reducing risk of falls and fractures,” says Bickman.
The Best Types Of Exercise For Strong Bones
That said, not all exercise has an equal impact on bone health. According to one Sports Health study, activities that strain the muscles at the greatest load and frequency are most beneficial to bone strength. That means high-impact and resistance moves.
If you’re sweating to support strong bones, focus on the following six types of movement.
Thought running was only for endurance gains? Guess again. “Running is a great aerobic exercise for both cardiovascular health and bone growth,” says Conrad. Every single step puts strain on the muscles around your bones, which encourages bone growth.
According to one International Journal of Epidemiology study, even just one to two minutes of running a day is beneficial for bone health.
Since running puts a lot of strain on your bones and joints if you’re overweight or deconditioned, start with one mile at a time, says Conrad. Increase your distance by no more than 10 percent each week.
If you already have osteoporosis, “start slow, always wear proper foot attire, and run on [softer] grass or cork, if possible,” Conrad adds.
What do box jumps, jump squats, and broad jumps have in common? According to Conrad, these explosive, high-impact movements strengthen your body and bones, from head to toe.
“Research shows that plyometric moves generate and incredible amount of hip bone mass, when done at high intensities,” adds personal trainer Lesley Bell, C.P.T., of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
In one American Journal of Health Promotion study, researchers broke sixty premenopausal women into three groups. Some jumped 40 times a day, some jumped 20 times a day, and others didn’t jump at all. After eight weeks, the women who jumped 40 times a day improved hip bone mass significantly more than the other groups.
Conrad recommends adding at least 20 reps of plyometric movements to your workouts (after a good warm-up, of course).
3. Strength Training
Weight-bearing exercise forces the body to work harder against gravity, and that resistance stimulates bone growth. The greater the load you lift, the greater the force on your muscles and bones, and the higher the rate of bone growth.
The aforementioned Sports Health study shows that even just a 12-minutes of strength training three days a week can improve bone density.
Conrad recommends that new lifters work with a personal trainer to learn how to do movements such as barbell squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and standing shoulder presses. (Big lifts like these offer the most potential benefit.)
From there, he recommends incorporating weight training at least three days a week—and gradually increasing your weight as you get stronger.
4. Bodyweight Exercises
Don’t have access to gym equipment? “Resistance exercises that use your own body weight, such as pushups, pullups, and lunges can also improve bone density,” says Conrad.
Just know that because they don’t load the body as much as weighted exercises, bodyweight moves aren’t as effective at stimulating bone growth.
However, bodyweight moves can get you started—and help you develop the strength and coordination needed for any future gym workouts.
Here, too, Conrad recommends working with a trainer to perfect pushup, pullup, air squat, lunge, plank, and burpee form.
As if you needed another reason to lace up your boots, hit the trail, and get some vitamin D: Hiking also benefits your bones.
Like plyometrics, “hiking is considered a weight-bearing activity because it forces you to work against gravity,” says Bickman. Plus, hiking has also been shown to improve core strength, which reduces risk of falling.
One note: Research shows that lower-impact exercises like walking and hiking don’t create as much of a bone-growth response as higher-impact weight-bearing aerobic exercises like jogging, jumping or dancing. For that reason, Conrad recommends considering hiking a beneficial accessory exercise, but not your main focus.
If you’re new to hiking, start by getting the right equipment (like ankle-protecting hiking boots and walking sticks). Then, start slow with shorter hikes, and increase your distance and difficulty as you get stronger and fitter.
6. Tai Chi
For folks already diagnosed with osteoporosis, Bell highly recommends Tai Chi.
The ancient Chinese practice integrates slow, dance-like movements with breathing techniques and visualization. “The movements require balance and strengthen your core musculature,” says Bell—a major protection against falls.
A similar option: Moving meditation. Also called ‘walking meditation’ or ‘kinhin,’ moving meditation involves walking slowly and continuously with focus on how your body moves, your mind, and breath. It’s a great way for older populations (and folks who otherwise don’t enjoy exercise) to gently incorporate movement into their day, Bell says.
Not sure what to do? Download an app like Headspace, which offers audio-guided moving meditations.