Weight-bearing exercise FAQ

09 Jun 2017

You may have read that weight-bearing exercise is great for building strong bones in early life, and as we age to maintain bone strength, but what exactly does ‘weight-bearing exercise’ mean?

Rachel Ashcroft-Hands, National Osteoporosis Society Specialist Nurse, answers some of your most frequently asked questions about weight-bearing exercise.

Low impact

Q. What is weight-bearing exercise?

A. Surprisingly, it doesn’t necessarily mean working out with weights. Weight-bearing exercise is any exercise where the body supports its own weight during the activity, through the hands and arms, or feet and legs. There are two different types of weight-bearing exercise: high impact and low impact, although many activities and sports provide a mixture of the two – great for bone strength.

High-impact weight-bearing exercise can include jogging or running, playing games like tennis, and high energy dancing, while for lower impact weight-bearing exercise you might enjoy walking at varying paces and inclines, or gentler dancing. For a good variety of both types of bone-loading exercises, try an exercise-to-music or dance class.

Tennis

Q. How does weight-bearing exercise help to build strong bones?

A. When you walk, run, play tennis, or take part in any form of weight-bearing exercise, your bones are subjected to a jolting force which is pushed along your limbs and through your body as you move. These forces help to improve the bone strength in the hips, although your spine and other bones may benefit too.

Strong bones

Q. How much weight-bearing exercise should my family or I do to enjoy the benefits?

A. Weight-bearing exercise should make up part of your weekly exercise activity. The government advises that children should do 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, and adults 30 minutes, at least five days a week, or at least 150 minutes per week of an activity that makes you feel warmer and slightly out of breath.

When it comes to building strong bones, we don’t necessarily need to exercise for long lengths of time. Brief and high-impact workouts are very effective at building bone strength and stimulating the bone-strengthening process.

It’s important to remember that we build our bones when we are young, up until around the age of 30, which is when we reach optimum bone density and strength (peak bone mass). From this age onwards, weight-bearing exercise helps to maintain our bone strength and ensure a steady and gradual decline as we age. The type and intensity of exercise that you choose should always be adjusted to suit your level of fitness and health.

Keeping active

Q. Can other forms of exercise help to improve my bone health?

A. Many forms of physical activity can contribute to good bone health and will help keep your bones fit for purpose. Two other key types of exercise that help keep our bones strong and healthy are resistance training and balance exercises. Find out more in our muscle resistance exercise FAQ and 5 ways to improve your balance.

Q. Are there any other health benefits of weight-bearing exercise?

A. Yes. As with any form of exercise, weight-bearing activity is great for our muscle strength, balance, general well-being and mental health too. Here’s 9 more reasons why it makes sense to exercise.

Feel good

Q. Are there any risks in doing weight-bearing exercise?

A. If you haven’t got much experience exercising, start small and build your fitness first - not only will your body thank you for this, but you will find it more enjoyable and be more likely to continue your new regime. It’s also important to remember that we should all listen to our bodies and adapt our exercise habits to suit our health and fitness levels as we age.

Be aware that excessive exercise without getting adequate nutrition may contribute to being underweight and could lower hormone levels, which might cause bone loss.

If your bones are fragile - especially in your spine - you may need to be cautious about rapid and jerky, high impact movements and exercises, particularly if lifting something heavy too. As everyone has different levels of fitness, it isn’t as simple as saying you should avoid any exercise in particular, but you may need to assess your individual risk (perhaps with a health professional) and be safe and comfortable with the weight–bearing exercise you do. If you have a medical condition exercise can have important benefits, however you might need to talk to your GP before starting a new exercise or sport that you’re unsure about.

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